It is a commonplace that many attempts to “improve” or “re-engineer” business processes fail for reasons that are not always obvious to participants. Sometimes this can be traced to unexamined assumptions about the nature of organisations.
One of the more radical re-thinks of the nature of organisations is embodied in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). This was pioneered at Lancaster, primarily by Professor Peter Checkland. At its heart is a radically different view of what human organisations actually are. Most Business Process Re-engineering/Improvement initiatives unthinkingly take the view that organisations are like machines: that you can analyse their components, take them apart, put them back together and make them work in a different configuration, much as you might do with a car or a gas turbine engine.
Soft Systems on the other hand takes the view that organisations are not like machines Among other things, when assessing any proposed improvement it explicitly takes account of organisational culture by assessing proposed changes in terms of both their “desirability” and “cultural feasibility”.
The other consequence of this mindset is that Soft Systems encourages thinking in large enough wholes: for example, not merely working conditions for employees but perhaps also issues such as the impact of changes to schooling policy on their child-care responsibilities, or of changes to bus routes on their commutes.
A good example of this “wide horizon” thinking which predates Soft Systems is the story of radar in the Battle of Britain. British radar technology in 1940 was not especially advanced. What was advanced was the way they used it. They had to invent from scratch a whole process for using the data well: all the paraphernalia of plotting tables and data filtering – even the selection of radar operators. It all worked because Hugh Dowding had organised for Fighter Command to practice the use of radar data in air exercises in the 1930s even before radar technology was actually available. Peter Checkland tells the story in his book Information, Systems and Information Systems: Making Sense of the Field. What won the Battle of Britain was not technology but an organisation honed to use it effectively.
So the core message of Soft Systems can be summarised in two precepts
- Don’t treat organisations like machines
- Do think in large enough wholes
These precepts are well worth keeping in mind, whatever method you are using to attempt to improve an organisation’s performance.