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.

 

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Time and The Systems Approach

A key concept for planning social systems

This is a summary of Chapter Nine 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 and 8 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Capturing the future        Time is a tricky yet inescapable factor in all planning. We have no precise model of the future, nor do we have reliable data for its input. Yet, the embedding principle of systems thinking forces us to think about it. Since every system is embedded in a larger system, this “larger” system may also be the future world. In this sense of “larger,” the larger system is infinite, stretching endlessly into future generations; it also stretches endlessly into the past (TSA 137). Churchman adds that “management scientists are not interested in this sector of the larger system except as a source of data, as they somewhat naïvely think they can do nothing about it.” This remark is not unimportant, especially when we take a critical systems approach to social design. In such a context extrapolation of past data is controversial and the interpretation and revaluation of historical events can easily lead to radical new ideas.

2.  Nonseparability     … is another key systems idea that we discussed before. Nonseparability and the embedding principle are related ideas. Nonseparability simply means that there are functional relationships in and with the larger system that must be considered when improving a ‘smaller’ system. Most of us will tend to take a time-limited, spatial view of things, but there is no reason why the concept should not be extended into the temporal dimension. Most of the time when we do admit to such a temporal extension it is to look at the next stage of whatever we are planning to do or improve. But again there is no reason why the nonseparability concept should not be extended beyond the next stage to the subsequent stages, in principle ad infinitum. “Often multistage looking is called ‘dynamic’, while single-stage looking is ‘static’. “ (TSA 138).

3.  The scientific systems approach     … is that of the management scientist, who is one of the voices in the dialectical systems approach, also known as the systems approach of Churchman. Time and again Churchman shows that the management scientist is a nice, rational fellow, whose modus operandi is terribly constraining when it comes to social system design. The management scientist abhors uncertainty, so he prefers the static view over the dynamic view, whereas Everyman knows that the dynamic view is what counts. “The reason the scientist finds it impossible to go very far into the future is that he believes the error of his measurements increases with time, so eventually all his estimates become completely unreliable.” As mentioned elsewhere this applies particularly in social design (i.e. when humans are involved, including business and the ‘design’ of scientific inquiry), where different perspectives in choosing and ranking functional entities and relations are unavoidable. Now the management scientist has a trick up his sleeve as expressed by a “credo, which reads: Benefits and costs both diminish at each successive stage.” (TSA 140). This neatly helps to overcome the embarrassment of his or her preference to take a static, short-term view.

4.  Network theory      …. , or network analysis, comprises such planning techniques as CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Programme Evaluation Review Technique). They are project management techniques that have been created in the late 1950s to plan, schedule and control complex projects. The management scientist likes CPM and PERT a lot, but applies them mostly to physical systems. The question is to what extent network analysis techniques could be applied to social systems. This is the subject of the next chapter on planning.

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.

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Management Information Systems: an example

A political opportunity for studying the systems approach

This is a summary of Chapter Eight 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 and 7 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map. 

1.  Application of the Systems Approach        In the early 1960s, Governor Pat Brown of California issued an invitation to the aerospace firms of the state to respond with proposals for a “systems approach” to some important social problems. The idea was that if systems scientists could do wonderful things for NASA then they could do the same for critical problems of the state. For those of you who don’t know the ‘Browns’: Pat was succeeded in 1967 by Ronald Reagan, who was succeeded in 1975 by Pat Brown’s son Jerry Brown. The latter ran again for governor in 2010 to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011. The social problems the systems scientists were asked to address included information, transportation, crime, and welfare (according to Churchman it was sanitation, but that seems unlikely, considering the recollections of Hale Champion, who had worked closely with Pat Brown at the time).

2. Purposes      The governor indicated that he expected the Californian information system to become computer-based. Officially the purpose was “to provide the public and managers of the various agencies with the right kind of information at the right time and with the right precision and in the right form as the needs require.” In reality the idea was to propose a system that was capable of providing the same information as the present manual system, but to provide it within the time of the present system, and at least within the costs of the present system. Churchman emphasizes that the difference between both definitions has enormous consequences for the design. The hidden purpose of it all was to make use of the “think tank capacity” in the Californian aerospace industry as a result of “one of the great lulls in government contracting,” so the statewide information system study was carried out by Lockheed, Palmdale.

3. The design       The systems scientists were mostly computer specialists, who went to work enthusiastically to design the information system. After having considered various configurations they settled on decentralized storage with a central catalogue to indicate where the different databanks were located. The challenge was to stay within budget, so they budgeted the cost of the programmers and other manpower required to develop and run the system as well as all the hardware. The system had to be capable of accurate and speedy information transmittal in a relatively easy manner (what we now call ‘user-friendliness’), at least most of the time.

4. Political support        … was limited. As already mentioned above the idea was to provide some form of temporary employ to make sure that aerospace teams would stay together. At the same time the idea of applying the systems approach to other areas such as social problems took hold of some farsighted politicians, who were also considering long-term cost savings. Whosoever came up with the idea seems to be unknown, perhaps it was Churchman himself. None of the proposals reached the implementation stage. Churchman considers political support to be a hidden resource, for obvious reasons: “One can scarcely say that a systems approach has been taken if a large part of the design is bound to die on the vine for lack of political fertilizer.” Politicians did seem to have had some understanding of the systems idea that went well beyond the use of computers. Hale Champion said that the criminal justice study had to take a look “from crime to outcome of punishment, all the way through the system.”

5.  Points not considered       Churchman mentions a number of aspects that were left out of consideration: (a) the risk of ‘uncontrolled information accumulation’ that besets any information system, so why not prevent that risk being transferred to the computer-based information system by adding a ´forgetting´ function; (b) the question of whether future needs are to be taken into consideration or just the present needs (the subject of the next chapter); (c) the privacy or confidentiality issue; and (d) the use of a statewide information system to support decision-making. Ronald Reagan figures in The Systems Approach as the next state governor who, rather unsystemically, chose across-the-board cost savings of the government apparatus. Churchman suspects that a highly sophisticated statewide information systems would in all likelihood not have convinced Reagan of a more rational approach to achieve savings.

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.

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Management Information Systems

Knowledge management & information bubbles avant la lettre

This is a summary of Chapter Seven 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 and 6 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Computerized information systems     … are mostly automated forms of traditional libraries. They are systems all right, but far from a systems approach to information. Libraries are organized in ‘non-systemic’ (i.e. non-separable) departments: solicitation, cataloguing, storing, advertising, research. Research looks mostly at user behavior in a superficial, i.e. statistical manner: number of lent books, and – these days – number of clicks. The value to users is not recorded, but assumed. A systems approach would require the development of a management and evaluation model that operates on the basis of optimization of value to the user with the usual considerations of costs and alternatives.

2.  Traditional libraries       … were originally created to collect and store documents subject to a kind of quality filter. The first retrieval systems probably date back to the Hellenistic world. The first recorded librarian of the Library of Alexandria was Zenodotus of Ephesus. During his tenure, Callimachus compiled the Pinakes (tables – or index L. or catalogue Gr. – of the contents of the Library of Alexandria), about 245 BC. Simple indexes are subject (or title) and author-based. More complex ones make use of a thesaurus (a specialized vocabulary) to describe document subjects more completely and unambiguously, thus forming a kind of expanding ‘fact net’ (see Leibnizian inquiring systems). The problem with all these indexing systems is that they have little to do with the specific problem (in terms of knowledge or otherwise) a user attempts to solve (except in a discipline such as medicine, which is fairly strictly organized around the problem of human diseases), but more with the way pieces of information must be organized to find them back. Libraries are also notoriously dull places (the Library of Alexandria was perhaps an exception), requiring exceptionally curious and diligent people to enjoy themselves with what they have to offer. Perhaps this was anticipated by Plato who was opposed to learning from books and therefore even to writing them (although he did write or dictate, fortunately). In his Academy learning involved asking creative questions in the form of Socratic dialogues, something that catalogued knowledge seems to stifle, because it restricts queries to the “fact net” of the indexing system.

3.  Management information systems     … are created to support decision-making, esp. in large corporations. It is also a course in business schools. MIS can deal with resource planning, supply chain management, customer relations, and knowledge management. Churchman doesn’t mention any of these, probably because they didn’t exist yet as separate areas of study in 1968. What Churchman had seen was the potential of computerized information systems. And their challenges and limitations, which is what this chapter is mostly about. The key question is how managers may obtain valid information that is relevant to their problems. For an information system to be able to supply such information it 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 (the ‘user model’) and a forecasting model to be able to contrast different potential solutions. This is likely to be a reiterative rather than linear process involving a ‘rich’ interchange. This ‘richness’ is in stark contrast to the minimal user relevant indexing of a classical library.

4.  Enriched interchange     Knowledge management is not a topic dealt with explicitly by Churchman (1968), because it didn’t exist at the time. In The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman (1971, p. 10) starts with a pragmatic definition of knowledge: an ability of some person to do something correctly. This means it is not a collection of information, because that would “rob the concept of its life” as “vital potential that makes an enormous difference in the world,” or in ´the whole system´. The question remains what the boundaries of ´the whole system´ are. These are defined by its ´effectiveness´, which conceptualizes an optimized form of value creation minus the costs or effort or time needed for creating it. Information and knowledge are the ‘stuff’ of the systems approach, which is all about understanding problems and identifying the best alternative policies. Now, most societal and business problems are complex in nature, which means that problem ‘analysis’ and intervention ‘design’ are aspects of the same process.  The core business of knowledge management would therefore be adapting the enriched interchange necessary for that process to different organizational contexts.

5. Systems approaches       Churchman emphasizes that there are different systems approaches. One of them is the scientific systems approach. In this case it has considerable difficulty of coming to grips with the subject: information. Churchman throws in a few of its notions to get a clearer picture, but there seems to have been a serious lack of tools, techniques or methods to go much beyond a general statement of what would be required for some real improvements to standing practice. The main points are that valid and relevant information must be obtained from multiple sources (not just computer-based information systems) and used in an enriched interchange about the purpose of a future intervention. The interchange must facilitate the asking of creative questions to identify innovative alternatives and must develop a model to compare these alternatives in an effort to find the one that optimizes value creation. Because every information system is likely to have an underlying Weltanschauung (or fundamental worldview), there is a risk of creating information circles (or bubbles as we say in 2017). Since Churchman also favors a dialectical systems approach it is important to listen to what ‘the humanist’ has to say, which is that our information system risks being closed to the outside world and its notions of deeper human reality, including those of morality and esthetics. In all likelihood this question cannot be settled for good, so the dialectics will only be interrupted by unavoidable decisions.

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.

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Program budgeting and the Systems Approach

Effectiveness by integrating planning and budgeting

This is a summary of Chapter Six 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 and 5 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Program budgeting     … is also known as Program Planning & Budgeting (PPB). It uses an integrated approach that combines planning with budgeting to achieve whole system effectiveness. One of its key methods is to create an overall picture of needs and resources, especially in a situation where multiple entities (departments, sections etc.) are dealing with a single broad issue and where oversight is lost or resources are wasted because of unnecessary competition between entities or undesirable overlap or gaps in their activities. The idea has been applied in the USA as early as in the 1920s by General Motors, during World War II, and again during the ‘heydays’ of the Cold War to control the many costly weapons development programs. It a is currently undergoing a revival in a simplified and scaled-down form as ‘performance budgeting’ in low-income countries such as Mali and Ethiopia, but also in high-income countries such as New Zealand, South Africa, and Great Britain.

2.  Alcoholism    Modern societies have developed multi-faceted government programs to deal with alcoholism as a social problem in ways that avoid prohibition and prevent excess. The problems range from alcohol-related accidents and low worker performance to abuse by alcoholic relatives. Alcohol can also be beneficial – socially, mentally, physically – if taken in moderation. A precise formulation of the problem of alcoholism is not simple, because it could easily lead to the formulation of programs that make the problem worse. It is doubtful that an objective such as ‘reducing the average amount of alcohol in the citizen’s bloodstream’ would be appropriate. The problem is that such a definition “fails to express the real problems that are associated with alcoholism.” (TSA 83). Instead, Churchman phrases the objective of the mission as: “the minimization of social damage caused by alcohol subject to the condition that the opportunity of consumption by safe social drinkers remains the same.” (TSA 85-86)

3.  Program activities      With this preliminary definition the activities that affect – either positively or negatively – the social damage that is produced by alcoholism can be considered: (1) prevention of alcoholism; (2) remedial activities; (3) control by means of medical, economic, legal, or social activities; (4) research; and (5) administration and general support of alcoholism missions. These five general programs are quite broad and must be broken down in subprograms to be able to analyse them, see the activity matrix in table 1 below (for reasons of compactness and overview I have combined tables 1 and 2). Even at this more detailed level, some overlap and gaps cannot always be avoided. But it must be kept in mind for future planning. Another problem is that of quantification, e.g. in man-hours or money. The best measure is that which most clearly contributes to the overall measure of performance of the system, i.e. the decrease in social damage.

4.  Needs and demands      Activities by themselves mean nothing. It is also necessary to determine the existing needs and demands for the activities. This is best done by classifying the needs of various kinds of people, the ‘customers’ of the alcoholism mission, and express these as demands made on the various programs and subprograms of the mission (see Table 2).

5.  Analysis     The situation is now very much as described in chapters 3 and 5 (see esp. the Considerations paragraph), so each subprogram is an activity center or component. The more activity in each center, the higher the overall measure of performance (or key performance indicator, kpi), the less social damage caused by consumption of alcohol. Each activity in principle has a “rate of contribution” to the overall measure, i.e. for each activity there is a coefficient of performance that is roughly estimated from the requirements matrix and the cost of the activity. The optimal design is one that maximizes the overall score by a rational allocation of activities in each subprogram, subject to manpower and funding constraints. In the actual practice of PPB, the requirements matrix is compared with the activities matrix to arrive at a judgment about the costs and benefits of each activity. The mere size of an activity should not be taken as evidence of its true benefit, but most be related to its cost. This is likely to require considerable detailed economic analysis.

6.  Concerns about PPB      One of the problems is that PPB is not very scientific and objective: wherever serious gaps in knowledge occur, PPB must make judgments, often very subjective and ill-substantiated judgments. Churchman suggests several such situations: (1) an activity can be effective in one setting and ineffective in another, depending on the social psychology or group dynamics and the way in which these are affected by the activity; (2) perhaps it is possible to exclude the part of the population that will never show harmful drinking behaviour from the program activities. This suggests that the research mission could be directed to these problems. A difficulty is that for many administrators of alcoholism programs, “research” means medical research, and not social research. Moreover, this research policy cannot be separated from research into other aspects of society such as education, health, law, the military, space, energy etc. Another difficulty is that social research is conducted in a fragmented way with results “that at best have a mild interest to the reader, and at worst are totally irrelevant for decision-making purposes.” (TSA 102). Moreover, the academic community does not want to be told what research to conduct.

7.  The decision-maker paradox      The systems approach means looking at each component in terms of its contribution to the larger system. This brings out gaps in the information required to make good decisions. However, the systems approacher has no full decision-making power (control) over the activities needed to produce the necessary information. This suggests that he had better delve more deeply into the role of information in the managing of systems. The question of the benefits of additional information and how to influence research will be discussed in chapter 7.

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.

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Input-Output Approach of Systems

Broadly applicable approach, be it with a few ‘buts’

This is a summary of Chapter Five 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 and 4 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Input-output        The input-output approach to systems is broadly applicable to systems in different sectors of the economy. ‘In’ go various types of resources (people, money ..) and out comes some kind of product or service. Like all other models the input-output model is not reality, but just provides a simplified representation of it. The idea is to provide a structure that can amplify human thought. This amplification by simplification does not add much as long as the entity is fairly simple and managers can handle it using experience, training and insight. But the input-output model becomes quite handy when things get more complicated and the input and output can be modeled mathematically to be used in computer programs for optimization purposes. In its mathematical form the input-output model is used especially by management scientists.

2. Examples      … include: (a) the educational system of a country or a state (in the US), where the legislative body ‘inputs’ money and out come students with various kinds of degrees, high-school, college and graduate. In the process the input is transformed into buildings, teachers, administrators, books etc. The system creates some of its own potential in the form of teachers; (b) transportation, where money buys infrastructure and materials and out comes the transportation of people and goods from one place to another; and (c) an industrial firm, the input of which can be regarded as the initial investment of funds, and out of which come various kinds of products distributed to various consumers, as well as dividends returned to the investors.

3.  Considerations      The input-output model takes into account the same set of five considerations identified in chapter three. Churchman uses the simplified case of a manufacturing firm that makes 100 different kinds of furniture to illustrate the considerations: (a) measures of performance is the net profit expressed mathematically as weighted output minus cost subject to a set of constraint equations; (b) environment is the constraint on production technology, external capital, and market characteristics (demand); (c) resources are the internal capital and personnel; (d) components are the product lines, i.e. those subsystems that produce and market each product; and (e) management is the decision making on the amount of resources to make available to each component or product line. In most cases this will be optimized in such a way so as to maximize profit.

4.  Mathematics       Above is an example of a simple basic formula for calculating total net profit  z, where xi represents the number of products of product line i, ai the profit per unit product of product line i, and bi the amount of fixed cost assigned to product line i. On the basis of this formula it seems as though the firm ought to carry on as much activity as it can, and especially activities associated with the most profitable products. At this point the two other critical items for consideration become important, the resources and the environment. The environment ´externally´ limits for instance the total amount of capital that the firm can pour into its products: the total amount of capital is ‘given’. The resources equally constrain the production capacity, but do so ´internally´ e.g. in the form of the skilled labor force available for producing some of the more profitable products. Another resource is the total budget allowed for the variable costs of the system, thus constraining the activities as a whole. These constraint relations can be expressed quite easily mathematically. Models of this type are often called linear programming models, because all of the relations are linear.

5. Modeling problems      …. e.g.: (a) the distinction between resources and environment is not easy. Some managers can are sometimes accused of being too cautious, when they could for instance increase the amount of skilled labor time to increase profit by hiring additional people. This would require additional capital. The management scientist could extend the model to determine whether this would make sense. But how will that convince the investor? Should not then the model be extended to determine whether one investment is better than other opportunities for investment? If this is becoming way too complicated – which seems to be the case – should then the scientist not admit that his model is not looking at the system as a whole, but rather at a very limited system? (b) another modeling problem is that of the data to be used. The firm’s accountant will probably be willing to state how much it costs to make each product, but are these the right data given that much of the accountant´s work concerns taxation issue that may not be relevant to the profit side of the picture; (c) a further modeling problem is that of simple assumptions, e.g. of demand for the products to be fixed, irrespective of the price of the products, competition, and advertising. These simple assumptions are attractive because they ‘enable’ the separability of the system components, an ideal seldom realized.

6.  Systemic problems       …. include: (a) the fundamental limitation to any modeling of a system, because a system is always embedded in a larger system (embedding principle, see here); this principle also applies to ‘middle managers’ when ‘the company’ generates ideas that threaten their ‘systems’; (b) the true costs associated with any system always reflect the way in which the larger system behaves: management scientists often avoid the value problems of larger systems by letting a higher authority determine what measures of performance (e.g. net profit, students graduated) to apply for their limited systems; “in general, we can say that 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 what resources should be made available, and deepest of all, the more difficult becomes the problem of the legitimate values of the system; (c) the role of the management scientist and the significance of his “systems approach” can be questioned, considering all the errors – irreversible errors sometimes – that it commits. Is it reasonable to reduce the manager to an ‘information processor’, thus ignoring his or her rich experience and judgment? Or are the “experienced leaders” the more suspect, considering the mess they made of things in cities, countries, and the world at large? And finally, is the management scientist not a kind of systems philosopher instead of a scientist, for believing in his approach.

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.

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Illustration of the systems approach

A simple clarification of Churchman’s systems approach

This is a summary of Chapter Four 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, and 3, since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

Introductory Note         Chapter four is rather special because it shows clearly how Churchman’s systems approach (also known as the systems approach or the dialectical systems approach) combines other types of systems approach (efficiency approach, humanist approach, and the “systems approach” of the management scientist, also known as the scientific systems approach). It also shows how the dialectical systems approach evolved from the scientific systems approach (which itself has clear roots in the efficiency approach, see previous notes) and how Werner Ulrich, Churchman’s Swiss PhD student, developed his critical heuristics (Ulrich, 1983) from Churchman´s dialectics. The story is also interesting from a historical point of view, because it shows how the current state of globalized trade not only has deep roots in efficiency improvements in the USA, involving the use of pallets, forklifts and containers, but can also be linked to the adoption of a free trade doctrine in a period of tremendous economic success and Cold War (see e.g. Chase-Dunn et al., 2000, and Sheppard, 2012)

1.  Port study      From 1957 to 1962 studies were undertaken in the port of San Francisco by the staff of the Maritime Cargo Transportation Conference, National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council, to provide guidance toward improving transportation of general cargo by sea to ensure that U.S. ports remained competitive globally. The program aimed to reduce: (1) turn-around time of general cargo ships; (2) ship turn-around time in port, including methods to increase cargo-handling productivity; (3) the cost of cargo handling, and to reduce the arduousness of the work; and (4) develop methods to assess improvements in cargo-handling systems and their effects on the port. Also, from late 1957 until the end of 1959, the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union had bargained over the terms of an agreement intended to permit the employers to introduce mechanical cargo-handling methods with liberalized working rules. The men of the registered work force were to be protected from loss of work, and the savings made possible by the mechanization were to be shared with them. The agreement became effective in 1960.

2.  Management science     …. was at the core of the port study. Two models were developed: an elaborate simulation model and a much simpler mathematical model. Churchman and his students worked mostly on a Monte Carlo simulation model of port operations, which assumed that performance was determined by probability distributions obtained from past data, including those of ship arrivals, loading and unloading times, and labor availability. From the ship arrival statistics it became clear that they followed a Poisson distribution, which indicated that they could be optimized using established methods for solving waiting list problems. “This and similar studies have become prototypes for descriptions of terminals in other areas of transportation, airports, railroad and trucking terminals, etc.” (TSA 60).

3.  The embedding principle     …. is central to systems thinking, including Churchman’s systems approach  and – slightly less so – the scientific systems approach. The principle simply says that every system is embedded in a larger system. The idea behind is that in order to deal with a problem, it makes sense to look at the system of which the problem is a part, a symptom. So, the problem of costly cargo handling is embedded in the port system. This is so, because only few people really care that cargo handling is costly if not for its effect on US competitiveness and the threat of labor strikes if cargo handling is made more efficient, i.e. less labor intensive. ‘Sweeping in’ is the activity of applying the embedding principle.

4.  The dialectical systems approach     … “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind [perspectives] with respect to society” (see here), including those of the efficiency approach and the scientific systems approach in the port study. In this case the port-related agencies were identified as the decision-maker (4a). This implies that very few resources can be controlled, other than the production of recommendations, which means that there is no way to influence ship arrivals or labor availability directly (4b). It also means that extending the embedding principle to the transport system will not be considered, because the port-related agencies are only concerned with port-related affairs (4c). This means it was blocked from coming up with a ‘container revolution’ (see also here and here), seriously restricting the purpose of the investigation by the engineers (4d: to “whether or not there were some technological means of improving the performance of the industry that would counterbalance higher labor costs”). Finally there is the question whether it is fair to share the benefits of any innovation among the organized labor (to appease them) and the shipping companies, while the funding came from tax-raised government funds, so why not sharing the benefits with the public at large (4e). Or the casual labor, because they are in the worst position of all (4f), according to the humanist.

End note        In the years to come, Churchman would develop a categorical framework for inquiry and planning involving twelve categories, of which the first six are: client, purpose, measures of performance, decision-maker, components, and environment (see e.g. here and here). It is obvious that all the ‘stupid’ questions that were asked from the perspective of the dialectical systems approach, could also be asked – as is done in Ulrich’s critical heuristics – using these categories, e.g. what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’ the purpose of the activity? The idea emerged from his work in operations research (which is part of management science), during which Churchman found that: (1) the scientific “systems approach” typically does not question certain critical assumptions it makes; and (2) these questions are strongly inter-related, i.e. a conscious or unconscious decision to accept a certain categorical assumption has important implications for other categories. ‘Unfolding’ is the activity of becoming aware of these implications. The combined activities of ‘sweeping in’ (the embedding principle, see above) and ‘unfolding’ summarize what Churchman’s systems approach is about.

  • Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.
  • National Academy of Sciences. (1964). San Francisco Port Study: description and analysis of maritime cargo operations in a U.S. port (Vol. 1, 2). Washington, DC. Google Books, PDF.
  • Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical heuristics of social planning: a new approach to practical philosophy. Chichester etc.: J. Wiley & Sons. 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.

 

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