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System Thinking and Process Improvement

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System Thinking and Process Improvement

In the world of business process improvement, we look to introduce change to help businesses become more effective, efficient, and capable. We focus on different areas of businesses, identify what needs to be adapted or rebuilt, and move ahead on the changes that provide the greatest benefits.

Organizations are made up of different moving parts. If we view each department, function or process in isolation without considering how they interact with each other, our improvement efforts will not target the right places. We will be stuck spinning in our tracks.

But how do we guarantee that our efforts produce the best possible returns?

To answer that, we must look at the big picture.

Why We All Need to Be Systems Thinkers
A system is a collective of interdependent parts that function together to support and deliver a shared end-goal. Once we understand what everything is working towards, we can break the system down into pieces and understand how each part is making its contribution.

To explain systems thinking, I will be using an example that everyone should be familiar with: a car.

Cars are made up of various assemblies, each with a distinct purpose. The engine produces power, the transmission distributes power, the steering wheel directs the vehicle, and the suspension provides a comfortable ride. While each part has its own distinct purpose, they all work together to achieve a shared goal: to transport the car to a destination.

If we want to change our car to reach destinations more quickly, we would need to focus our efforts on the parts that influence speed. While improving the suspension system might help the car’s handling, the greatest gains will likely come from a more powerful engine.

Businesses behave in the same manner. There is a shared goal to create value for a customer, and each function has its role which contributes to that goal. When a new strategic direction is set (ie. Getting to the destination more quickly), the business needs to adapt.

The problem is that the linkages between departments are often unclear and people are not always cognisant of how their actions impact the collective. Often times decision-making rests with a few cross-functional managers that understand these interrelations. However, they lack the detailed knowledge that front-line workers possess, and they may not fully understand the implications of the changes they want to introduce.

How to Get Everyone to Think About the System

The reason we start our BPI engagements with cross-functional process maps is to increase visibility of the organization and the processes it uses.

These maps outline the flow of work from the moment an inquiry comes in to when the product or service is delivered. By explaining the flow of work using a single language, everyone can see how they fit in the organization, where hold-ups and frustrations occur, and where opportunities for improvement exist. Most importantly, they provide a simple visualization on how distinct roles interact with each other and allow all members of an organization to engage in meaningful conversations about change.
Processes can then be shuffled and redesigned to become more desirable, enjoyable, effective and efficient.

Systems are dynamic and to successfully introduce change, we must include voices from different business areas and organizational levels to predict the effects of change. Without considering how the system will evolve, we will not be able to understand what is needed to sustain our efforts moving forward.

Getting everyone to become a systems thinker helps achieve just that.

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