Category Archives: Workplace Systems

Workplace Systems Thinking Groups

This post is an overview of a talk by Tim James and Mike Haber at the SCIO open day in Manchester in October 2016. Pauline Roberts kindly made some great notes, and I’m using these notes as the basis of this post, and adding extra information and links.

At the talk in Manchester Mike and Tim gave an overview of some very powerful systems thinking work they have been doing in the workplace. Both have developed Systems Thinking groups in the workplace to share, support and learn from one another. Tim’s group is called Systems Thinkers Anonymous and Mike runs a strengths workshop. Both groups run for 1 hour per week over lunch time. 

The origin of this talk was a SCiO development day. These are days where systems practitioners meet to discuss practical problems they are dealing with. At a recent London Development Day Tim and Mike realised they were both facilitating systems thinking groups at their workplace, and although the groups were very different they had a lot of similarities. Looking at the differences and similarities has been really interesting.

Notes taken from SCiO open day by Tom Hitchman

Notes taken from SCiO open day by Tom Hitchman, @Carbonliteracy

 

How Mike’s Group Started

Mike started by running the introduction to systems thinking workshop “Draw Toast” with 45 people, and follow up sessions exploring boundaries using football matches as an example helping people start to think systemically. This was an example of using a single systems ideas, boundaries in this case, to investigate a situation. Mike had spoke at SCiO on this previously, and has a set of cards for workshops planned.

After these two sessions Mike asked a small number of colleagues who had attended previous sessions to investigate Clifton Strength’s Finder and Clean Language to see if using both ideas at the same time would be useful.

This group has been meeting weekly for about 10 months, and has moved to discuss more approaches, but in a largely unstructured meetings, using a lean coffee ish format. People bring their own ideas and situations.

Tim’s Group

Tim’s Systems Thinkers Anonymous group developed alongside a blog to engage and help others. The blog at http://systemsthinkersanonymous.com/ has helped their learning and a wide audience has now been drawn in to share learning and encourage systems practice and systems thinking. Tim’s group is more structured, and looks at systems approaches from Burge Hughes Walsh Training and consultancy.  There is a wide range of approaches and Tim’s blog discusses how the group has applied these to their problems. There is suggested work to do before each session, and a structure to the learning.

Example of rich picture from Tims group

Example of rich picture from Tims group

Tim’s blog is a great narrative of how the group has run, and has some great examples of applied Systems Thinking, including lots of diagramming techniques, Soft Systems Methodology, Rich Pictures, and guests including Jean Boulton talking about complexity

Comparisons

Whilst both groups are about drawing people into systems thinking, one is very structured and one is more organic. This demonstrated the versatility of how systems thinking can be shared at a grass roots level in organisations.

There was a discussion about “safety” of the groups, both as a protection from those who may challenge the legitimacy of the group, and the safe spaces for discussion that were created.

The branding of learning was helpful – both groups use freely available materials that helps give legitimacy and openness to the groups – the materials are available to anyone.

Content

Mike started using Clean Language as a way to model how people feel and  using Strengths Finder to understand how people work, and asked how the two pieces of information can support working relationships. The organic nature of the group allows emergence of topics for discussion that make people look at situations differently. The lack of agenda is its power. They are able to discuss things that would otherwise feel “unsafe” to talk about in the workplace. People are able to explore their own behaviour in a non-judgemental environment. Non Violent Communication was introduced as an amazing framework for doing this. He aims to explore Barry Oshry’s work next but the organic nature of the discussions will allow any topics prevail – whatever what people want to explore.

Tim has observed barriers being brought down and people feel they can talk about systems thinking in a way they never could before.

Tim noted there is a thirst for this kind of group due to the lack of training budgets in the NHS. Going into the systems thinking space is very different for those in the NHS. It is engaging and powerful and helps people look at the problems they are facing.

 

Questions

Do people think outside in or inside out? Are the groups on the outside, inside or are there some linear thinkers who are getting broader? And how this fits with the populations as a whole?

Tim – they have attracted people who would normally be attracted to the group. They have lost one or two but most have stayed.

Mike – similar to Tim, it’s people who are interested, but is quite rigorous calling out woolly thinking. There has been a definite shift towards practical systemic thinking in the group, and good practical examples of the use of the tools in work, and in other relationships.

 

Are the boundaries open?

Tim has taken in new members lately.

Mike – problems of scale as it is over lunch time. We definitely have a tight group, but are currently using the group to plan a series of three one hour workshops using Barry Oshhrys Power Systems framework.

 

Are either looking at a time when they can be an overt challenge to the organisation?

Tim- The blog – reflective text, way of engaging with other and also it can create autopoiesis – others could do the same if they wanted to.

Mike explained how people are starting to ask to be taught things about systems thinking there is an appetite for practical systems thinking, but it may need to be grass roots.

What do we get from the groups

What is emerging – fun! They are really enjoying their journey. There is a lot of work to set up a learning group but it is worth it. Whilst it isn’t for everyone most people are keen to support one another. Tim is doing project on public health, another on isolation (particularly for the elderly) and how to do commissioning for outcomes.

Shared ideas for Future Groups

Timing

Both groups meet weekly. If someone misses a meeting it’s a week until the next one, and there is a great benefit in running at the same time and day each week.

Content #1

The content of each group is sourced from books, websites and videos, and is open to anyone. There is no secrecy about the tools we’re using. Having a open source of content is important.

Content #2

The content the group discusses should reflect their interests, and if possible their issues.

Drivers

Both groups we’re initiated by a person interested in a group forming, who was able to get people interested. There may be some work involved, but both groups now meet if the initiator is not there.

Planning /Purpose

Each groups started with a completely different purpose. Tim’s group had a syllabus. Mikes started with one lunchtime meeting to look at a couple of techniques to see if they had merit – like a academic peer review. It continued and looked at other ideas because there was a interest to do so.

Official Support

Neither group has official support or funding. Margaret Wheatleys “Proceed until apprehened” works here. The groups are authentic, and are not suspect to ‘fear of missing out’, or have members who are there because they need to be seen there. A downside is a lack of direct influence. This can also be an advantage, as people can simply behave differently, and explain why afterwards which can be powerful.

Safe Spaces 

The groups are safe spaces where difficult conversations can be held. In the case of Mikes group, the group is quite tight. It would be hard for new members to join due to the shared language and understanding that the group has.

Any new group would need to be mindful of this, although it is not a negative in itself.

 

 

 

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Why are people replacing robots?

Mercedes-Benz is replacing some of the robots in their factories with people.

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/26/mercedes-benz-robots-people-assembly-lines

3127953038There had to be some passionate conversations between factory managers, and executives at Mercedes-Benz with this one. Replacing some robots with people has caused all sort of problems. If the factories are quite new, and were built for automation they probably don’t have many toilets near the factory floor. Or a large car park, or canteen. Robots don’t drive to work, and need to eat. Factory managers will take personal and professional pride in running efficient operations and automation has made cars affordable, reliable and available.

What is going on when the factories start employing people to replace robots? Wearing an efficiency hat this doesn’t make sense. Robotic factories have been the only future imaginable for years.  What has changed? Does the factory rulebook need to be rewritten?

Increasing pace of change and complexity 

From the Guardian article:

The robots cannot handle the pace of change and the complexity of the key customisation options available for the company’s S-Class saloon at the 101-year-old Sindelfingen plant, which produces 400, 000 vehicles a year from 1,500 tons of steel a day.

We need to be flexible. The variety is too much to take on for the machines. They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”

Robots can’t currently mange the complexity of the customisation options. People are currently able to outperform robots at tasks requiring variety, at least until the robot manufacturers catch up.

Managing Variety 1: Making something you can sell

To find where this variety has come from, we can start in sales. Mercedes is in business to sell cars to customers. To do the sales folk need to offer what the customer environment wants, a…

… dizzying number of options for the cars – from heated or cooled cup holders, various wheels, carbon-fibre trims and decals, and even four types of caps for tire valves –

There may be customer demand for these, or marketing could have created the demand. Either way, with a lean, efficient production line, the sales folk are selling something the robotic factories can’t make.

Variety 2: Selling something you can make

Mercedes need to reduce the variety their customers demand to a level their factories can cope with. Balancing this equation is essential. Of course the ultimate offer would be a custom Mercedes for each customer, but this is not possible for the cost of a Mercedes.

To do this marketing and production have to work together to design and market cars that they can make in their factories. Mercedes-Benz are a luxury brand, so cost efficiency is not the sole purpose of the factory.

Marketing has to create and manage demand for the sort of customisation that their factories, restructured with people and robots, can produce. People can cope with the operational variety that robots, or people behaving like robots can’t.

Using robots, machines or computers increases efficiency, but reduces the ability of the system, in this case a factory, to cope with variety in an fast changing environment.

At every level we must ensure that the variety equations balance. If a car dealer can’t supply what the customer is asking for, they will buy elsewhere. If the factory can’t make what the car dealer is selling then the business won’t last long.