Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is an approach to improving the way that the 'work works' and doing that from the customer's or user's perspective. It aims to create a better service, reduce costs, improve staff morale and increase capacity.

What is it?

In its simplest form, systems thinking can be defined as a way of looking at a system (such as a business process) as a whole.

Applied in the context of a method, it is a management methodology that promotes common sense thinking and elimination of waste in work processes. Quite often, we tend to look at our processes in a fragmented way and we work and think in silos, which creates systems that do not work optimally.

Thinking about work design in a more systematic way can help us to:

  • Cut costs
  • Improve performance
  • Increase levels of staff morale
  • Improve our customers' experience

Vanguard Method

The Vanguard method uses a 'systems checking, outside in, customer approach'. When you learn to take a systems view starting from the 'outside in' (from the customer view, rather than the organisation) you can more easily understand the waste caused by current organisational design. You can use this knowledge to see opportunities for improvements.

Vanguard Model - Check, Plan, Do

This method came out of Taiichi Ohno's ideas behind the 'lean' Toyota Production System, adapted for service organisations where there is a wide variety in customer demand. The Vanguard model allows you to design the work to absorb that variety.

There are three steps in performance improvement:

Check Understand your organisation's systems; ask what and why
Plan Identify levers for change
Do Take direct action on the system

If you understand the 'what' and 'why' of current performance, you will gain confidence in planning and executing change that is based on knowledge.

More information on Systems Thinking is detailed at

Service Improvement Conference 2014

In 2014 we held a Service Improvement Conference which focused on systems thinking as a method for continuous improvement.

The event was attended by 140 staff from service areas across the University and included a range of breakout sessions to put systems thinking methodology into practice. Working through exercises together, staff discussed real examples of how current thinking impacts our processes and ultimately our customers. They also learnt about how they could put this understanding into practice back in their areas of work.

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