Visual tool for Systems Thinking


Thanks to @PascalMestdach for presenting the visual systems modelling method at the #LeanCampBxl Unconference.

This is a very easy management technique to help visualising a complex organisation, and reflect on the dynamics at work when aiming for a particular goal.  A full model of an organisation with all the different perspectives is very hard to do, and anyway, any model is only an approximation to reality and never perfect. But you can construct a model focusing on a particular sector or aspect of your business: it will help you grasp what’s going on, how things impact one another, and share that same information with your team.

A model allows you to reflect on it: you get a deeper understanding and that can provoke insight. You can see how external changes could influence your system, and you can use it to test new ideas, simulating the impact of a particular change.

Also, understanding how the system works and what is our role in it let us be more effective and proactive.

Here is how to begin: you will need many post-its, a whiteboard and a marker.

  1. Prepare beforehand some basic post-its, writing already on them an element at play for the part of the business you want to analyse. You can mention inputs, activities, events, stakeholders, processes, behaviours, business objectives, personal goals, external influences…
  2. Then, present the process to construct the model of your business system: the idea is to identify the relationships between the presented elements that are at work on your company.To begin with, focus on 2 types of relationships: either it is a positive one where one activity goes on the same direction of another one (the more defects in a product, the more time spent fixing defects), or a negative relationship where it goes the opposite way (e.g. the more defects in a product, the less happy is the customer).  Here is how to represent those links:
    You see there mentioned a third notation to indicate ‘Delay’. This reflects the dynamic aspect on the two types of relationships (positive or negative) that is the delayed effect on time of an action. When the effect of an action is almost immediate, we see the relationship (like if you hear a horn waiting at a red light, you know the person has lost patience, and he horned because of a long timing of the red light), but the longer the delay between cause and effect, the increased complexity of the model because it’s more difficult to see its influence (like the returns of a marketing campaign).
  3. Don’t forget to give indications on the mindset needed to accomplish this!

    The objective is to construct a model where participants agree that it reflects their reality. That will allow them to clearly understand the issues at play. Managers may be surprised to discover how some activities are perceived by the team, the knowledge (or lack of) of objectives or of parts of the process, and even by what motivates the different participants (if they label a relationship as positive or negative).As every organisation needs everybody to work together for the whole to function successfully, this gained insight is very valuable. New post-its can be added if the participants feel there is an element to be captured.
  4. Validating the Model: once there is a consensus on the resulting model, put it to test using the technique of an ‘Ideal world’.Imagine our goal is: ‘Customer satisfaction’, write then ‘100%’ on top of that post-it. Then propagate this value to any post-it that is linked with a positive link.  So all of them have 100%.  Then follow the opposite links, and instead of labeling them ‘100%’ you write ‘0%’.  Are there any conflicts? Could you propagate the values and keep the model consistent?  Well done then!If not, open a discussion on possible changes to make this model work ?

You may notice that if you maximise a particular goal, like for example ‘customer satisfaction’, you may end up minimizing another potential goal (like ‘employee satisfaction’, or ‘minimal investment’). Nothing is 100% or 0% in our real world, but this ‘Ideal world’ propagation strategy makes you see what are the important factors to achieve a particular goal, and where are its negative impacts.

With this new insight, you are better prepared to decide on how to realign your goals, and you also have a visual representation of your business to communicate the objectives to the team.

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