Planning and the Systems Approach

A planning system is part of the systems approach

This is a summary of Chapter Ten of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Whole system planning       The systems approach is about planning with a view to the whole system. In spite of the fact that everybody uses planning, the act or policy of planning can be quite controversial. Planners are not necessarily to be trusted. Some people associate negative forms of planning with the control over everything as in communism or fascism. Far better, says the anti-planner, if freedom of choice determines what happens. This in turn may also pose a threat as demonstrated by the Great Depression or widespread illegitimate acts, pointing at the need for some form of freedom curbing control for the greater good. The best forms of control, according to democrats, are those where people are free. Freedom is also needed for progress. Freedom-generated progress can be ‘hijacked’ by the anti-free. Planning, freedom (including that of anti-planners), progress, stability and control are inter-related and require prudency in planning, control, progress, stability and freedom.

2.  Planning systems      …. are needed to optimize plans. It is mostly ‘planning for planning’. For a plan – as understood by the planner – it is necessary that: (a) the decision-maker is studied (without an understanding of the decision-maker the remaining steps are pointless); (b) goals are set; (c) a group of alternatives is created; (d) each alternative is scanned as to whether it will or will not effectively lead to the goals; (e) one of the alternatives is selected; (f) the plan is implemented; and (g) the decision-maker checks to see how well the plan worked. The last piece of information will be used to control the operation of the plan, as well as to plan better in the future. A detailed description of the planning system can be subdivided into three subprograms: (i) social interaction, which concerns the ongoing relationship between the planning system and the decision-maker(s); (ii) measurement (identification, classification, prediction, etc.); and (iii) test (verifying the plan). Of these three major subprograms of planning, “the second […] occupies the most attention at the present time, and this may account for the fact that planning so often fails in its mission.” (TSA 152).

3.  Social interaction        The first step in this subprogram (1a. justification) is primarily concerned with the overall assessment of the worthwhileness of the planning effort. The key measure of performance (MoP or key performance indicator) is: net gain (esp. in money). The paradoxical question to be answered here is also: how much planning is really needed? The next component of the planning function is the one that selects staff and places the function in the organization (1b). One of the critical problems of organizing for planning is the potential isolation or alienation (the non-adoption of sensible plans) of the planning function, no matter how it is organized. The third component is that of communication, i.e. the promotion of acceptance & understanding by all persons who have some role in the plan. It has three basic strategies: persuasion (involving good salesmanship with MoP: degree of acceptance), education (MoP: degree of understanding, and politics (which is mostly about forming (win-win) coalitions (MoP: reduction in resistance). The fourth component is the design of a detailed, stepwise plan of implementation: who should do what, and when.

4.  Measurement     … is not just about putting numbers to things, but rather the activity of creating precise, accurate, and general information. Precision and accuracy enable us to make refined choices and hence reduce the risk of error. General information is information that can be used in a wide variety of circumstances. It all presupposes ‘sensitivity’ of choice, including sensitivity of making the wrong choice, e.g. of alternative or decision-maker or goal. The overall  MoP is simply that – if quantification is possible – one choice results in a better result than another. The decision-maker (2a, e.g. labor unionists, stockholders, may require influence mapping) and alternatives (2b, may be simple, if most decisions have already been taken, or difficult, in the case of new policies or products) must be identified by the planner (uses best innovative, creative, radical, unreasonable thinking). The components of goals and objectives must be considered in various kinds of conferences between managers and planners. Objectives give ‘meaning’ to goals and strongly affect their effectiveness. Good planners imaginatively use long-term scenarios (“stories”) to keep the distant future alive in the minds of decision makers. The environment (attitudes of customers, financial environment) determines to a large extent the effectiveness (2e/f) of alternatives. Hidden goals often come to light after selection (2g) esp. in the form of the need to look at the goal to minimize a particular problem from occurring.

5.  Test       This subprogram has three components: (3a) simulation to test the selected alternative; (3b) counter-planning to prevent serious errors in making basic assumptions about the selected alternative; and (3c) control, which includes feedback of information about the operation of the plan and change of plan when needed. What the planner strives for is something comparable to the cybernetician’s ‘negative feedback’, i.e. a situation in which information coming to the manager arrives at the correct time for him to take the appropriate course of action. This phase of planning does require capitulation of all the steps, so that, as additional information pours in, correct change can occur.

Final notes    The above planning system may seem rather elaborate. For some kinds of organization (e.g. stabilized organizations or activities based on individual initiative, e.g. research) the need for planning may be quite small. For other organizations (government, military, large corporations) it should be large. But these judgments could be all wrong: perhaps a nation should undertake a systematic planning of research, in order to rationalize the very chaotic and inconsistent ways in which research activities are funded. This brings us back to component 1a. above. Finally, planning must not only ‘pay’ for itself, but it must also compensate for the opportunity cost of planning, i.e. for the use of the planning funds in some other program of the system.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.



About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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