In the words of Dr. Deming, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
Therefore, we owe it to our customers, teammates, and staff to improve our systems and processes continuously. So, how can we do that, how is this related to strategic project management, and what is the difference between systems and processes? The Strategic Project Manager’s job is to implement changes. Often these changes directly related to improvements to processes and systems. Every implementation has causes and effects with and within systems. Therefore, it is important for all change agents, implementers, and practitioners to understand the art and science of changing and improving systems and processes.
We can simplify Systems Thinking By Pointing to the Drivers of Change Model! We think about the 5 elements of The Drivers of Change and ask what are the interrelated loops related to:
- The external environment (Domestic and International)
- Our People
- Our organizational structure
- Our internal environment
- All the systems and processes
What are Systems and Processes?
The meaning of the word “systems” can be confusing. Systems are broader than processes. Systems may be the entire infrastructure where a process is the activity part of an overall system. Strategic Project Managers use projects to implement changes with and within both processes and systems.
Processes – A good definition from a business blog explained processes as being more tasks related. “A Business Process (BP) is defined by a set of tasks or physical steps required to convert an input to an output thereby creating product or service value, while a Management System (MS) is the structure of information used to ensure the company is meeting its business process objectives.” http://hayesgroup.biz/PerformanceManagementTherapy/?tag=key-performance-indicator. Therefore, we might think of continuous process improvement (or Business Process Improvement) as improving the activities required to do work.
Systems – Systems are boarder than processes. Processes are also systems, but systems also cover other things, tools, methods, thoughts, and infrastructures. Systems may have many parts or sub-systems. As summarized from www.Dictionary.com, a system may be:
- “An assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.”
- “Any assemblage or set of correlated members: a system of currency; a system of shorthand characters.”
- “An ordered and comprehensive assemblage of facts, principles, doctrines, or the like in a particular field of knowledge or thought: a system of philosophy.”
- “A coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure; organizational scheme: a system of government.”
- “Any formulated, regular, or special method or plan of procedure.”
Understanding Systems can become complex very quickly. Therefore, we will only address the simplest of concepts related to Systems Engineering as it relates to Strategic Project Management in this chapter.
What we Might Think About When We Say Systems
Confusion about Systems
(Another of Craig’s Story)
Mid 1980’s – I remember my first real communication roadblock centered on the word system. It was early in my career at the beginning of the personal computer (PC) revolution. I was a program manager for SAIC working for Westinghouse and the Department of Energy. Our job was to develop several large systems. Two of which were, the first operations wide Configuration Management System for the Department of Energy and the first Simulation/Expert Systems for managing operations at several Westinghouse plants. My team consisted of two Industrial Engineers, a Chemical Engineer, some support staff, and Several Computer Programmers from two companies SAIC and a small 8a company (8a is the government’s designation for a Minority Owned Small Disadvantaged Business). As we conceptualized the systems we were building, I ran into my first highly heated professional misunderstanding between team members.
It all centered on the word “system.” I used the word “system” to describe each of the operational “systems” we were to develop along with all the Sub-“systems” that made up the overall “Systems.”
Each of the team members acted as if they never heard the word before. However, at the time I could not see the problem. What was happening, was the Chemical Engineer thought of systems as pipes and major material handling equipment. The Information “Systems” people, thought in terms of computer equipment and programs. The Industrial Engineers looked at the people, machine, facilities, and work environment interfaces. Others just became confused at the generality of my statements. We fixed the problem (after a major team breakdown) by stopping and redefining our understandings of the key words like “system and subsystems.” I soon learned, defining the key words that you will be using is often the best place to start a planning session.
Confusion about Systems, Continued
(Another of Craig’s Story)
Mid 1990’s – This sounds crazy but the same thing happened again in the mid 90’s with a group of senior technology managers. Before I left a large company, one of the group managers called everyone together who had the word “system” in their resume. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm on how we could capitalize on the renewed interest in Systems Engineering. How could we build the systems engineering capabilities within our company? However, I was the only classically trained systems engineer in the bunch.
Once again, like the front line engineers in the mid 80’s, the room full of senior managers became confused about the meaning of the word systems. Everyone lobbied for his or her own very specific part of the overall meaning of the word system. The Information Systems people talked in terms of computers, the Environmental Management people thought in terms of natural systems, and Waste Management people lobbied for ways to remove and transport waste, and so on. I tried to stop the arguments by explaining, we should first understanding the Core Competencies of System Engineering and that we could apply to each of the disciplines. The Group Manager stopped for a second and let me talk. However, as soon as I was finished, he again asked the same question, “So how are we going to build and market systems engineering,” and the arguments resumed.
Nevertheless, while all this was happening, in the middle of the chaos, key managers asked me to explain the concept of Core Competencies of Systems Engineering. I showed them a Core Competency tree and explained the elements of systems engineering. Several weeks later, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the same group manager explain the words “core competencies” to his staff. He butchered the word “Competencies” several times, as the same key managers I tutored helped him pronounce the word.
Confusion about Systems Continues Today
(Another of Craig’s Story)
2011 –Even today, I run into people who do not understand the broader concepts of systems and systems engineering. During a more resent meeting with a manager at a different company, the subject of Systems Engineering came up. She tried to convince me that system engineering is related to only IT. Therefore, I could not have been a Systems Engineer because my role was broader than IT. I tried to paint the picture of Systems Engineering as looking at the Space Shuttle as a system and IT is only one part (a large part) of the overall system. However, so is the fuel system, the ships mechanical systems, the control systems, the ship’s skin, and so on. Although IT/IS may be integrated into the entire space shuttle, the broader subject of Systems Engineering covers more than just IT. Nevertheless, no matter how I explained it, she was unwilling to see. I thought the word “Systems” would be better understood today than in the mid-80’s when everyone came to the subject from different points of view. Even today, people often misunderstand systems engineering as being limited to Information Technology.