Case study shows value of ‘systems thinking’

Using a ‘systems thinking’ approach will help local authorities identify priorities, reduce complexity and better serve citizens, says a new Socitm briefing.

Highlighting an extensive project by Wiltshire Council, the latest briefing from Socitm’s Insight research programme shows how analysing customer channels and transactions, using systems thinking, can make a robust bedrock for digital and business transformation.

The briefing details a presentation by the Council’s Head of Systems Thinking and Customer Access John Rogers, about ‘designing services and systems around customers rather than ourselves,’ says Rogers.

 

Systems thinking

Systems thinking, as the briefing explains, offers a more radical approach to business transformation than the classic ‘plan-do-study-act’ improvement cycle developed by American engineer and statistician Dr. W. Edwards Demming.

As a management discipline, systems thinking provides a way to understand and analyse a complex organisation and its many interconnected elements – both real and abstract – and how they should work together to function properly.

For Wiltshire Council, says Rogers, systems thinking has already helped transform the authority’s garden waste renewals process, shifting 76% of the formerly complex transactions to a new, automated digital service designed around peak customer times and not council office hours.

More generally, systems thinking approaches has allowed Rogers and his team to identify the Council’s services that could most benefit from redesign, for the greatest impact – with libraries, leisure services and council tax topping the list.

The briefing explains how systems thinking clarifies whether demand is predictable or unpredictable, as well as purpose-relevant ‘value demand’ that is helpful and beneficial, versus ‘failure demand’, which is wasteful and unnecessary to fulfilling customer needs.

Rogers said of this aspect of systems thinking: “Our ethos is to design for value and ‘leave the waste behind’ rather than ‘focus on removing waste’. If you do the former well, the latter is a ‘byproduct’ and a realisable gain in capacity.”

 

Examples

The briefing contains a number of items illustrating Rogers’ systems thinking project.

For example, in one analysis of Wiltshire Council’s annual 3.3 million service demand requests, it was found that some 1.1 million requests were of an ‘I want to book’ nature, and predominantly in leisure and library services. It is this analysis that led to the conclusion that transforming these areas could make the most significant difference.

In conclusion, the briefing outlines five recommendations, which are:

1. Properly understand service demand and the customer transaction process in detail.

2. Redesign for the value delivered – not simply cost reduction, for example.

3. Automate and make digital where possible, consistent with point 2.

4. Be open to rethinking the organisational design:

  • Change any processes currently designed around management structures and not around service customers
  • When information flows over past organisational boundaries, your frame of reference expands and you can re-imagine both services and structures on a bigger, more transformational, scale.

5. Be pragmatic about what you do and when. Even within the top 20 or so opportunities, easy and quick returns are essential for a ‘self-funding’ programme that is seen to be successful and worthy of further support.

Related reading