Systems Thinking – a fresh way of looking…

Image courtesy of Michael Leunig

In our energy industries, how many thorny issues keep recurring, how do we find it difficult, if not impossible to get to the root of issues and make changes that make a difference in the long term?  Why is there often conflict and surprises when a well-intended intervention is made? Why do procedures get blamed when things go wrong?  There are many examples, but here are two from my own experiences;

  • Electronic Permit to Work Systems (read as a technical system) are intended to simplify maintenance and hazardous activities, whilst improving safety and operating efficiency. Over several years of the energy industry implementing such systems, electronic Permit to Work systems have added complexity, they have not reduced the frequency of failures in Control of Work, and the operating efficiency of the workforce has decreased considerably in recent years, where at best, an offshore installation may achieve 6 to 7 productive hours from any individual worker each shift.
  • Major Capital projects have run extraordinary late, averaging at least one year, and often more, beyond budget completion dates. As an inevitability, costs have also spiralled to orders of magnitude higher than original budgets, where the economic viability of the project itself becomes threatened. These outcomes are real, but the paradox is that every operating company is majoring in ‘Capital Efficiency’, and within the context of a mature industry that has been executing major projects for fifty years. A rational view would expect such a developed industry to be highly efficient at major project delivery, with advanced technology and experienced project teams in abundance.

With these two scenarios, what explanations can be offered to make sense of these puzzling dynamics…?

These examples illuminate the difficulty in dealing with real world complexity. To clarify, this is not scientific, mathematical or engineering complexity. This is the point! Managing real world complexity is to acknowledge that people, organisations, values, goals and behaviours are crucial factors when trying to find explanations for ‘systems’ that are not working. To treat human endeavours as a technical difficulty will result in a messy situation.

This is exactly the world of Systems Thinking. This approach invites a fresh way of looking at problems. The critical distinctions which make this approach different are:

  • It is holistic, rather than reductionist
  • It takes into account multiple perspectives (that all have different goals)
  • Causes and events are interconnected by feedback loops, rather than linear thinking
  • Systems of interest are used to understand interconnections, relationships and purpose

In very simple terms, it means stepping out of the weeds, and appreciating the whole situation, understanding the relationships and interconnections between events, behaviours and the underlying systemic structure.

Systems Thinking embraces these principles and with a range of methods, tools and approaches, allows new ways of looking at problems. For example, a systems approach to Permit to Work would use methods to explore why individuals are driven to populate the system with too much information creating the situation where the worker has a rucksack full of information to read before he can carry out a routine task. Aspects such as leadership behaviours or attitudes to blame would be much more important than the technical system in play.

With the Capital Project example, taking a Systems approach would require a concerted effort to understand the perspectives of supply chain dynamics, it would look at the historical cycles of the skilled labour market, and it would look at how projects are organised and how they collaborate across organisational boundaries.

The proof is in the eating of course. I have adopted a systems approach to a range of issues for many years, both on small and larger interventions. And from my experiences, all I can say is that it works.

Does it need an intensive period of study to put it into practice? My view is not. To acknowledge the principles of stepping back and thinking holistically is already a giant step forward.

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