A summary of ‘The Systems Approach’

Tnhis is a 15-paragraph overview of a series of 15 blogging posts, which covered 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. At the end of each paragraph is a link to the original post, providing a more extensive summary of the original chapter. By quickly reading through the 2000+ words of this overview you get a good impression of what Churchman’s seminal book is about. You will also see the first outlines of the framework of categorical considerations that Churchman presents in his next book (The Design of Inquiring Systems) and that forms the basis for Werner Ulrich’s Critical System Heuristics. You will also get a better sense of how that framework was originally used by Churchman, which isn’t all that different from how you can use it today and in the future. Ulrich has shown that the framework can be used on its own, Churchman used it in combination with techniques from management science, you could use it in combination with a planning approach of your own.

Preface   C. West Churchman (1913-2004), an American pioneer in management science and systems thinking, was one of the first to recognize that social systems – whether in business or society – “are far too complicated for our intellectual powers and technological capabilities to be able to really identify the central problem and determine how it should be solved, no matter what approach is used,” including the scientific systems approach of management science. This convinced Churchman of the need to make a distinction between this scientific systems approach – and a novel, much more dialectical systems approach that “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind with respect to society,” such as ”the humanist approach, the artist’s approach, or the engineering approach.” See full post at CSL4D.

Thinking       [chapter 1] The scientific systems approach is a great planning tool. It identifies various subsystems to achieve a particular objective. An additional, overall management subsystem relates all the sub-objectives to the central objective, checks whether sub-objectives meet their standards, keeps an eye on the time and budgetary constraints, and prepares alternative pathways in the case of problems. Unfortunately, this approach may still create a whole lot of nonsense. The dialectical systems approach is Churchman´s rational effort to address this ´snag´. Its chief interest is in systems with humans in them, such as industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions.” Churchman’s dialectical systems approach first of all reflects on the overall objective and then describes the system in terms of this overall objective by juxtaposing four different debaters: (1) the advocates of efficiency; (2) the model building scientists; (3) the humanists, who emphasize freedom, dignity, privacy; and (4) the anti-planners, wary of rational plans. See full post at CSL4D.

Efficiency       [chapter 2] The efficiency approach is preferred by debater number one. It is at the core of scientific management, not to be confused with management science. Its main objective is improving labor productivity. Idleness is one of the typical symptoms of inefficiency. It can be observed in workers, machines, inventory, infrastructure, and budgets. The “systems approach” considers the efficiency approach ‘old-fashioned’ because it looks at only one part of the system, not the system as a whole. It is better to ask “what combination of waiting and idleness is optimal in the whole system?” The general principle is that it is often best to balance one inefficiency with another to achieve better total system performance. See full post at CSL4D.

Systems       [chapter 3] The scientific systems approach is preferred by debater number two. It views a system as a set of parts (or components or subsystems) coordinated to accomplish a set of goals. The components use resources and the environment to work towards the total system objectives. So, a system is defined by: (1) the total objectives; (2) the relevant system environment; (3) resources “are the means that the system uses to do its job,” including money, people, time, and equipment; (4) components, which take specific actions for using resources and environment to work towards the outcome of the system; and (5) management, which keeps an eye on system performance and takes corrective steps when needed. This sounds straightforward, but Churchman found that it is very difficult to define these five “considerations”, the more so because they are interdependent. See full post at CSL4D.

Simulation      [chapter 4; original title: ‘an illustration’] A study of the rising cost of cargo handling in the port of San Francisco was used to show how the dialectical systems approach may integrate other types of systems approach. The worry was that costly cargo handling would affect US competitiveness, while there was also a threat of labor strikes if cargo handling was made less labor intensive. First of all, management scientists identified the government agencies as the decision-maker, which implied that extending the embedding principle to the transport system would not be considered, thus restricting the purpose of the investigation by the engineers. Next, a simulation model was developed using past statistics on ship arrivals and so on to be able to determine the impact of a change of technology on the cost of cargo handling and on other parts of the port system. Finally, there was the question whom to share the benefits of innovation with. See full post at CSL4D.

 Input-output    [chapter 5] The input-output model is also widely applied by management scientists. ‘In’ go resources (people, money ..) and out come products or services: e.g. students from educational systems, and goods and dividend from industrial firms. A linear model of a manufacturing firm that makes 100 different kinds of furniture takes must consider the same five aspects as identified in chapter 3: (1) measures of performance: net profit expressed mathematically as weighted output minus cost subject to a set of constraint equations; (2) environmental constraints; (3) resources; (4) components: product lines (including marketing); and (5) management: the decision making on the amount of resources for each product line. In general, the larger the system becomes, the more the parts interact, the more difficult it is to understand environmental constraints, the more obscure becomes the problem of resource allocation, and the more difficult becomes the problem of the legitimate values of the system. See full post at CSL4D.

 Program budgeting     [chapter 6] Program planning & budgeting (PPB) combines planning with budgeting to achieve whole system effectiveness when multiple entities are dealing with a single broad issue, oversight is lost, and resources may be wasted. First, the objective of such a multi-faceted government program to deal with a social problem (e.g. alcoholism) is formulated. Next a number of general programs is identified: (1) prevention; (2) remedial activities; (3) control, e.g.  by medical or legal activities; (4) research; and (5) administration. These in turn are broken down in subprograms, as shown in an activity matrix. After that, the demands for the activities on the various programs and subprograms are expressed, as shown in a requirements matrix. The optimal design is one that maximizes the overall score by a rational allocation of activities in each subprogram. Serious gaps in knowledge may require judgments that need additional research. See full post at CSL4D.

 Knowledge management      [chapter 7; original title: ‘management information systems’] Management information systems (MIS) support decision-making, esp. in government and large corporations, e.g. for resource planning, client relations, or knowledge management. The system must be able to identify which information is valid and relevant and understand how it could help the manager in his or her decision-making. This requires a model of the manager and a forecasting model to be able to contrast alternative potential solutions in a reiterative process, involving a ‘rich’ interchange. Now, the core business of knowledge management would therefore be adapting the enriched interchange necessary for that process to different organizational contexts by obtaining valid and relevant information from multiple sources. Knowledge is best defined as ‘the ability of some person to do something correctly.’ The humanist is concerned that information systems are closed to the outside world and deeper values of morality and esthetics are lost. See full post at CSL4D.

Management information      [chapter 8; original title: ‘an illustration’] At one time, the Governor of California asked experts to design a computer-based, statewide information system. The idea was to propose a system that was capable of providing the same information as the present manual system, preferably in better time and at lower cost. The hidden purpose was to use “think tank capacity” in the Californian aerospace industry during a lull in government contracting. Churchman notes that different purpose definitions would result in different designs and that political support could itself be considered a key resource. The most practical option had decentralized storage with a central catalogue. The proposal was never implemented. The following aspects were left out of consideration: (a) the risk of ‘uncontrolled information accumulation’; (b) the question of whether future needs were to be taken into consideration; (c) the privacy or confidentiality issue; and (d) the use of a statewide information system to support decision-making. See full post at CSL4D.

 Time        [chapter 9] We have no precise model of the future, nor do we have reliable data for its input. The systems idea of nonseparability is related to the embedding principle. It means that there are functional relationships in the larger system that must be considered when improving a ‘smaller’ system. Nonseparability would extend planning beyond the next stage (single stage, ‘static’ view) to the subsequent stages (multistage, ‘dynamic’ view). The management scientist prefers the static view over the dynamic view, whereas most people know that the dynamic view is what counts. The longer term increases the unreliability of estimates. This applies particularly in social design, with different perspectives in choosing and ranking functional entities and relations. Network theory, or network analysis, comprises such planning techniques as CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Programme Evaluation Review Technique). These are generally applied to physical systems rather than social systems. See full post at CSL4D.

Planning      [chapter 10] The systems approach is about planning with a view to the whole system. Planning must ‘pay’ for itself and compensate for the opportunity cost. Planning must be planned for.  An elaborate planning system unfolds into the subdivisions of: (1) social interaction, which subdivides into: (a) justification to demonstrate the worthwhileness of planning effort; (b) staffing and organizing to avoid alienation of planning from management; (c) communication of the plan by persuasion, education and politics; and (d) the design of a stepwise plan of implementation;  (2) measurement to create information about the decision-maker(s), alternatives, goals and objectives, effectiveness, and selection of the best alternative; and (3) test of the plan, using simulation, counter-planning and control. 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.” See full post at CSL4D.

Values       [chapter 11] Any evaluation of the systems approach depends on how we value, which depends on the ‘real’ objectives of the system. The problem is that system ‘inhabitants’ often hide the real objectives by emphasizing the positive aspects to garner support or admiration. Churchman distinguishes three roles: the customer, the decision-maker and the planner. The decision-maker engages the planner to help him serve the customer better by systemic change. So it is up to the planner to clarify the real objectives. Customers can be clients in a shop, stockholders, employees, union representatives etc. Finding out the real objectives often entails a complicated and sometimes frustrating learning process of trial and error. Words or behavior can only express people´s values and preferences indirectly. Planners prefer feasible problems over complex ones. One tempting and practical, but deceptive strategy is by making assumptions to reduce the objectives of the system to a single, simple goal. See full post at CSL4D.

 Behavior      [chapter 12] Behavioral science could complement the systems approach for better handling of human conflict and resistance to change, problems that may result in non-implementation. One approach is to study human conflict by means of game theory. Laboratory studies demonstrated the existence of cooperative and conflict types. Studies of real cases developed practical principles of organization and group motivation. Resistance to change is a topic in the field of social psychology. Findings could be used in a sociotechnical systems approach. One of the best ways for handling resistance to change is by avoiding the problem of alienation of the planning system. This implies the need for companies to transform into learning organizations. Gaming and social accounting are two other fields of behavioral science. Business games can give entrepreneurs a direct insight in conflict situations. Social accounting is useful in supporting concepts that are used in the systems approach. See full post at CSL4D.

 Anti-planning     [chapter 13] The idea that a planning philosophy such as the systems approach is the most appropriate philosophy is not shared by everybody. It is also important to realize that “no approach to systems can stand by itself. Its only method of standing is to face its most severe opposition,” as could be mounted by anti-planners. Churchman distinguishes 6 types of anti-planning: (1) the ‘excellent’ manager; (2) the sceptic (there is no sound approach); (3) the determinist (everything is the product of social forces); (4) religion (upholds “God’s plan,” which is unalterable); (5) approaches reflecting the self: e.g. the revolutionary self; and (6) the non-intellectual, e.g. artists. The ‘excellent’ managers are the most common of all anti-planning approachers. They are supposed to be persons with rich experience in the system and with perceptive, brilliant minds. They “know the business” and cannot see how some outsider could tell them anything significant. See full post at CSL4D.

Deception       [chapter 14; original title ‘conclusion’] The ultimate meaning of the systems approach “lies in the creation of a theory of deception and in a fuller understanding of the ways in which the human being can be deceived.” So: (1) understanding our problematic systems is our most critical problem; (2) the problem of finding the appropriate approach is insoluble; because (3) continuous perception and deception are in the nature of complex systems; so (4) we must continually re-view the world, the whole system, and its parts. Four principles of deception-perception confuse and enlighten the management scientist and everybody else:   (a) “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” (b) “The systems approach goes on discovering that every world view is terribly restricted.” (c) “There are no experts in the systems approach;” and (d) “The systems approach is not a bad idea.” See full post at CSL4D.

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 https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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