Strategy Matters: Leveraging your business model for innovation and growth Reply

Photo of Professor Thomas Lawton
Guest blogger: Thomas C. Lawton, PhD FRSA, Professor of Strategy and International Management at The Open University Business School.

The purpose of our Business Perspectives event in London on 21st September is to integrate research, consulting and practice in a discussion about the interface of data, digital and business models. Questions raised will include: what is a business model and how can managers innovate existing business models to create new market opportunities? How have digital technologies transformed business models? How can big data drive a growth-oriented business model? We are fortunate to have three excellent business speakers, representing insights and experiences from large corporations (BT Group), mid-sized companies (Hillgate Travel), and consultancy (Added Value/Kantar). I will add my thoughts, based on 20 years of research, writing and advisory work.

Whilst the tone of the day will be critical but upbeat and positive, it is worth reflecting in advance on the challenges and in some ways, existential threats that exist to disruptive and often asset-light business models. Let’s take two examples: Airbnb and Uber. Investors have valued Airbnb at $30 billion and Uber at close to $70 billion. But as I write, I am in Germany’s capital, Berlin, a city that has regulated to prevent entire homes being rented through Airbnb and that banned Uber, ostensibly on consumer safety grounds. As we know, lobbying by black cab drivers meant that London came close to restricting Uber’s business model when Boris Johnson was mayor. Sadiq Khan may yet impose Berlin-style restriction on Airbnb, as research indicates up to half of Airbnb rentals in London are offered by professional landlords, limiting further the number of long term rental properties available in a city with an already chronic shortage of housing.

My point is that it is easy to be carried away by the hype and hubris surrounding new, digital, data-driven business models. What the market and some consumers value may not be valued by all and if a company does not factor in wider stakeholder engagement, it risks unravelling the very fabric of its business model. In my research, I call this an imbalance or misalignment between a company’s market and non-market strategy. The non-market refers to the political, regulatory, social and environmental contexts in which a company operates. Airbnb rushed to grow its global footprint and sign up more and more hosts without considering the impact its nightly rental business model would have on neighbours and communities. Uber focused, understandably, on customer satisfaction but neglected to make a case to political and regulatory authorities about the positive impact its business model would have on urban congestion and pollution through, for example, its ride sharing option.

For companies to maintain growth, an aligned strategy, reflecting both market and non-market engagement, is critical to the integrity and success of business models and must occur at all levels, from city to state.

We can continue this conversation during and after Wednesday’s event. I look forward to meeting you there.

If you would like to attend our masterclass ‘Strategy Matters in Turbulent Times: Think Big Data. Think Business Models’, please visit The Open University Business School website for further information and details on how to book.

Strategy Matters in Turbulent Times: Think Big Data. Think Business Models Reply

Our Business Perspectives masterclass will take place in London on 21 September, led by Professor Thomas Lawton, Professor of Strategy and International Management at The Open University Business School (OUBS). Professor Lawton is a published author on international business and strategic management and has spent twenty years advising leaders, managers and entrepreneurs on business development and market growth.

Guest speakers include:

  • Antoine Boatwright, CTO, Hillgate Travel
  • Patrick Callinan, Global Head of Data and Analytics at Added Value (a Kantar/WPP Plc company)
  • Hilary Collins, Lecturer in Management, OUBS

A symbiotic relationship exists at the heart of successful strategy between what the customer wants and what the company can deliver. In this masterclass we’ll explore:

  • What are the critical components to design and deliver an innovative, effective business model?
  • How do you render a growth-oriented business model robust enough to deal with today’s unpredictable world?
  • How can you factor in global disruptions driven by digitalisation, big data and geopolitical risk?

We’ll also look at the latest thinking and frameworks to better enable growth oriented business strategies that are adaptable and responsive to technological change.

Places are limited. For more information and to register, visit our website.

Webinar: Staying on the “right” side of public opinion… and how to avoid controversy Reply

During our webinar, we explored issues of legitimacy in an organisational context and shared insight into the pharmaceutical industry, as a real life example of why legitimacy is so important for businesses.


Our webinar panellists included Dr Björn Claes, Senior Lecturer in Operations Management at the OU Business School and Sonia Siraz, International Fellow at the OU Business School. The webinar was facilitated by Peter Wainwright, OU MBA alumnus and Business Consultant at Askyra Ltd.

Please share your views and comments about our business legitimacy event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool  #OU_BP

Business Legitimacy Roadshows 1

You are invited to join the latest Business Perspectives ‘Business Legitimacy’ roadshows entitled ‘Staying on the “right” side of public opinion… and how to avoid controversy’; commencing at 18:00 until 20:15 with networking drinks and canapés reception afterwards on the following dates:

  • Wednesday 11 May 2016 in Dublin at Croke Park Conference Centre
  • Thursday 19 May 2016 in Munich at The Hilton Park
  • Thursday 26 May 2016 in Manchester at The Hilton Deansgate

We are especially delighted to announce Dr Björn Claes, Senior Lecturer in Operations Management at The Open University Business School (OUBS) will lead a highly interactive workshop to engage and debate.

Keynote guest speakers will be:

  • Dublin – Marc Sweeney, Thorntons & Partners Director, Thorntons Group
  • Munich – Andreas Klugescheid, Head of Steering and CSR, BMW
  • Manchester – Lucy Hinds, Head of Facilities, Covance

Facilitators will be:

  • Dublin – John Darcy, National Director, The Open University in Ireland
  • Munich – Paul Heardman, Consul General Munich, British Council
  • Manchester – Jim Yates, Director Fulcrum Management Limited

In the interactive workshop we will explore the issues of legitimacy in the organisational environment and activities will include:

  • Identify legitimators as evaluator
  • Identify legitimators as evaluees
  • Devise legitimation strategy from differing perspectives

During the event we will also cover maintaining legitimacy through CSR strategies.

To book and for further information, please visit our event website pages for Dublin, Munich, Manchester. Please note, places are limited.

Caring for an Ageing Population: Problem or Opportunity for Organisational Life? Reply

Photo of Dr Leah Tomkins
Guest blogger: Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at The Open University Business School.

In the West, we are all living longer. Indeed, the fact that our retirement ages keep getting pushed back suggests that we are expected to have many more years of productive life than was the case in previous generations. Whilst this is undoubtedly a triumph in terms of advances in medicine, nutrition and lifestyle, at the same time, it has thrown up a huge challenge for families, communities and institutions who have to work out how to care for elderly people for much longer periods of time than ever before. In particular, it has created a generation of ‘working carers’ who balance caring for an elderly relative with trying to build and sustain a career themselves.

Facts about carers – from the campaigning group Carers UK

  • 1 in 8 adults (around 6.5 million people) is a carer.
  • By 2037, it’s anticipated that the number of carers will increase to 9 million.
  • Every day another 6,000 people take on a caring responsibility – that equals over 2 million people each year.
  • 58% of carers are women and 42% are men.
  • Carers save the economy £132 billion per year, an average of £19,336 per carer.

Working carers

  • Over 3 million people juggle care with work.
  • As of 2014, 30% of working carers were earning at least £20,000 less than before as a result of caring.
  • And the significant demands of caring mean that 1 in 5 carers is forced to give up work altogether.

Carers UK – facts and figures.

A problem for organisational life?

It is easy to see why the increasing numbers of ‘working carers’ might create difficulties for organisations, and for HR and resource planning departments in particular. The advent of caring responsibilities often comes unexpectedly, as an elderly relative suddenly becomes less capable of looking after him- or herself. Caring responsibilities can feel open-ended and unpredictable, and it is impossible to know whether they are going to last for months, years or even decades. It is not easy to adjust workload allocations and expectations when it is unclear how long-lasting or how intensive an employee’s caring duties will be.

For ‘working carers’ themselves, the advent of caring responsibilities can represent a serious challenge to their sense of identity. We live in a world where the idea that professionalism equals dedication reigns supreme. Corporate strategists and culture change specialists strive for high levels of organisational commitment from their employees. The business literature abounds with terms such as ‘employee engagement’ and models of organisational ‘transformation’ which emphasise the importance of employees being inspired by, even devoted to, their leaders and the corporate vision they espouse. Most management consultants and OD strategists would probably agree that employees need to have ‘skin in the game’ if an organisation’s objectives are to be achieved. And for ‘working carers’, of course, there is more than one ‘game’ making claims on their ‘skin’!

Across both private and public sectors, organisations are working hard to try to help the increasing numbers of ‘working carers’ in their midst. Many have established support networks, and introduced a range of policies including paid and unpaid leave to try to acknowledge the complexities of balancing work and care. Appraisal systems are being reworked to try to set ‘performance’ in context, and to focus on quality rather than quantity of contribution. In some of the organisations I have visited, senior leaders talk openly and publically about their own caring responsibilities and about the practical and emotional impact these have had on their work and sense of professional identity. This is powerful stuff, because it can help to dissolve the shame and anxiety that employees feel when their domestic lives make it impossible to be the perfectly ‘engaged’ employee that has traditionally been required for career success.

However, despite the valiant efforts of many organisational leaders, HR professionals and line managers, I think there is still an assumption that becoming a ‘working carer’ is basically a problem – both for the organisation and for the individual. However sympathetic colleagues, managers and support staff try to be, there is an underlying sense that care disrupts, even destroys, careers.

An opportunity for organisational life?

I want to challenge this assumption that care necessarily destroys careers by asking the question:

“What is it that we experience as carers that might help, rather than hinder, us in our organisational lives?”

In other words, I think we might look at our experiences of care as a valuable resource and source of expertise. This relates to our experiences of both giving and receiving care, and to how these inform and shape our interpersonal relationships throughout our lives. I make this somewhat provocative suggestion not because I want to downplay how tough being a ‘working carer’ is. Nor do I deny that having to incorporate different work patterns and unpredictable availabilities can be extremely disruptive in organisational life, and trigger all sorts of resentments amongst colleagues who are left holding the fort.

But there is an extraordinarily powerful upside to having the notion of care at the heart of our organisational lives. This is because care experiences are all about asymmetrical or unequal relationships – about the way in which people interact when one person has more power or capability or capacity than another. And this is precisely the kind of interaction that underpins many key debates in business, including:

  • Relationships between leaders and followers – which are marked by differences in status, power, experience and/or expertise.
  • Decisions over leadership and change management methods – especially those which involve deciding between ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ approaches.
  • Ideas about ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems – and the extent to which stakeholders are either directed or empowered to participate in their resolution.

All three of these examples involve understanding the power dynamics of asymmetrical or unequal relationships. All three of them have a noticeable presence on the curricula of both corporate and academic leadership and management development programmes. And, in my view, all three of them are illuminated through the prism of our experiences of care.

This is because caring involves taking decisions about how to manage differences in status, power and expertise, without dominating or infantilising the other person. Caring also means coming to terms with being on the receiving end of a whole host of projected emotions, often in the form of anger, resentment and frustration. These are often completely unfair and unreasonable, but then again, so are the feelings of fury and disappointment that are hurled at leaders when they let us down and prove to be mere mortals after all. Our expectations of both ourselves and others in caring relationships evoke incredibly strong and primitive emotions. Acknowledging and coming to terms with these in our private lives might – just might – help us to acknowledge and come to terms with them in our working lives, too.

These thoughts dovetail with increasing calls for organisational life to be infused by an ‘ethic of care’. For me, the idea that care relates to ethics is really important, because it stimulates reflection on the meaning of our work and our organisational commitments, rather than pushing us always to be looking for ways to get more efficient. Indeed, my arguments about how care might enhance our working lives will lose their power and authenticity if they get leveraged into policies or procedures – or into jargon or sound-bites. In my view, an ‘ethic of care’ is not a shiny new model or theory that can be turned into a recipe for business success. Instead, it involves reconnecting with what we already know as human beings – with our understandings of the emotional dynamics of our selves and our relationships with others. Care is an ‘opportunity’, not in the sense that organisations can colonise and yoke it to issues of business performance, but more in the sense that, as human beings, we might reflect on how our experiences of our lives outside work might not be so different or disconnected from our experiences of our lives inside it.

An ‘ethic of care’ in organisational life involves:

  • Challenging the assumption that care is purely a domestic issue, or something ‘pink and fluffy’.
  • Reconnecting our experiences across the so-called ‘work/life boundary’.
  • Acknowledging the emotional undercurrents of our working, as well as our private, relationships.

If you are intrigued by any of these ideas, and want to learn more about my current and forthcoming publications in this space, please email me. Also, take a look at the videos from the Business Perspectives Masterclass (February 2016).

Is Organisation the Place for Care? – webinar recording available Reply

Our webinar on ‘Is Organisation the Place for Care?’ took place on 3 March. If you missed it or want to watch again, the webinar is now available to view on demand.

Watch the webinar 

The webinar showcases video highlights from the Business Perspectives masterclass, held in London last month and aims to stimulate thoughts around the challenges of incorporating care into working practices, HRM policy, leadership, organisational design, and organisational strategy.

Our webinar panellists included Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at The Open University Business School and Dr Clare Mumford, Research Associate at University of Manchester. The webinar is facilitated by Peter Wainwright, OU MBA Alum and Business Consultant at Askyra Ltd.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool  #OU_BP

Video highlights from our masterclass on ‘Is Organisation the Place for Care?’ 1

The Caring Leader: What do followers expect from their leaders and why? (Part 1)*

Professor Yiannis Gabriel, Professor of Organisational Theory, University of Bath

*Part 2 of this video is available via our online webinar.

Women’s Work: Being a working elder carer

Dr Viv Burr, Reader in Psychology, University of Huddersfield


Further video highlights from David Macdonald, Director of Organisational Learning at Arup, Zoe Davies, Head of Accent on Enablement Programme at Accenture, Professor Yiannis Gabriel, Professor of Organisational Theory at the University of Bath (focusing on an ethic of care) and Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at OUBS are available to watch during our online webinar (you will be required to register, if you haven’t already done so).

Free webinar on Care Relationships – a powerful blueprint for business & organisational relationships Reply

We are delighted to invite you to The Open University Business School’s latest Business Perspectives complimentary webinar:

Is Organisation the Place for Care? – Thursday 3 March 2016, 19:00 – 20:00 (GMT).


In this webinar, you’ll learn the importance of how our experiences of relationships of care give us the skills to become better leaders and change managers.

Our experiences of care help us to navigate the politics of unequal relationships, which may have a profound impact on how we manage, lead and follow in the workplace and wider community.

Amongst our presenters will be, Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies from the OU Business School. The webinar will be facilitated by Peter Wainwright, OU MBA Alum and Business Consultant, Askyra Ltd.

To register for this complimentary webinar and for further information, please visit our website.

Is Organisation the Place for Care? Reply

Our Business Perspectives half-day masterclass in London on Wednesday 10 February 2016 will look at ways in which care can influence leadership, organisational strategy, HR policy and issues of work/life balance. The event will be hosted by Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at the OU Business School, who has held senior leadership positions in Accenture, KPMG, PwC and the Cabinet Office, Whitehall. Amongst the keynote speakers will be Professor Yiannis Gabriel (University of Bath), Dr Viv Burr (University of Huddersfield), David Macdonald, Director of Organisational Learning at Arup and Zoe Davies, head of Accenture’s ‘Accent on Enablement’ programme.


We’ll explore some of the meanings associated with care, and their implications for our approach to work, career and organisational and personal commitments. In thinking about where these meanings come from – and how they are charged with some of our most primitive emotions – we hope to offer some reflections and provocations for how care might influence organisational strategy and practice.  We’ll consider three particular aspects of care, and try to tease out their common themes:

  • Care as an element of organisational culture; what does a ‘caring organisation’ look like, and what are its barriers and enablers?
  • Care as a central dynamic of leadership; what does it mean to be a ‘caring leader’, and would we really want to work for one?
  • Care in relation to work/life balance; how can we reconcile the rhetoric of flexible working with the reality of juggling work and care, especially relevant with our ageing population?

This event will appeal to those interested in issues of organisational strategy and culture, leadership, HR management, demographics and workforce planning, diversity and equality. It will have a special relevance for those juggling these interests with a caring commitment themselves.

For further information and to register, visit our website.

Why leaders need to be systems thinkers 2

Systems thinking is a highly effective approach to managing organisations. It sees complex entities as a series of components that make up the whole, each part interacting with and influencing the rest.

The various divisions, units and teams – the components – of a large organisation continually interact with and affect each other. In effect, they behave collectively as a system. As such, business leaders need to take a ‘whole-system’ perspective if they’re to maximise organisational performance.

Seeing the whole

To get the complete picture, leaders need an in-depth knowledge of the entire organisation, its various moving parts, and how each component impacts upon the rest. But there’s more to systems thinking than that.

Chain reaction

Business leaders need to understand the adaptive nature of systems. As dynamic entities, systems adjust to changes imposed on them – often with unpredictable results.

Leaders therefore need to know how the actions they take in any one part of the system will cascade down to affect the whole.

Supply and demand

What’s more, systems thinking requires a genuine understanding of both sides of the demand and supply equation.

Firstly, how much demand is there on the system? When and where will the organisation’s output be required? What are the likely peaks, troughs and seasonal variations in demand? What external factors will affect demand, and how?

And importantly, how much demand is due to the system not supplying what it should in the first place? In the UK public sector, some estimates put this so-called ‘failure demand’ at 80% of the total.

On the supply side, leaders need to understand their organisation’s capacity to provide the goods and/or services it offers.

Systems theory can help leaders to understand capacity constraints. This means they’re better placed to identify the resources needed for work to move effectively through the system. Otherwise, their focus is too often on the capacity to store work (storage capacity), rather than the scope to flow it (flow capacity).


Finally, leaders need to adopt the right management style, moving away from a purely command-and-control mentality. They must accept that the performance of their system is as much a factor of its design as of the work done by its employees. Issues such as poor performance, low morale or stress among the workforce often result from problems within the system itself.

Barriers to systems thinking

So what’s stopping leaders from gaining a systems perspective?

Organisations are structured into divisions and sub-divisions, each with its own managers, objectives, priorities, budgets and performance management targets. As a result, people understandably focus on the piece of the puzzle they’re responsible for. So it’s rare for leaders to be able to see the entire system.

Additionally, managers in each part of the organisation may not be incentivised to work with the other components to help meet the overall aim. As such, there may be no common vision; no shared ‘map’ of the system.

The performance targets that are often implemented in organisations can act as a barrier to systems thinking. They can bring about leadership behaviours that are counterproductive to the overarching mission.

And in the public sector especially, targets can be a tool for stakeholders to label units as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ – rather than a measure of how the system is performing. To make matters worse, solutions to failure tend to focus on the part of the system where the target was missed, not the system as a whole.

Moreover, most organisations are managed in a top-down, command-and-control way. But systems-based leadership means allowing frontline staff to develop a thorough understanding of the organisation, and empowering them to improve processes from within.

Taking a systems perspective

Creating a culture of systems thinking isn’t a quick task. It takes time to embed the knowledge and behaviours needed to make decisions, and take actions, that will benefit the system as a whole.

With this in mind, systems thinking shouldn’t be the preserve of a select group of senior leaders. A whole-system perspective can only be achieved by developing the ability to map work flows and processes among the entire workforce. In this way, any changes to the system can start with a clear idea of the organisation’s aims and purpose – and crucially, the needs of its end-users.

Are you a systems thinker?

  • Do you see the whole system, rather than trying to optimise your local resources? A ‘local’ perspective can damage the performance of the system as a whole.
  • Do you regularly walk through the process that your customers experience? If not, it will be impossible to generate a map of your system, and identify its potential failure points.
  • Do you regularly map your user experience, and make the map available to all who need it? Process-mapping should produce shared knowledge about the way the system is configured, and how its performance is influenced by its design. This can then act as a reference for everyone involved in improving the system.
  • How do you measure demand and capacity? Many organisations – especially public bodies – measure activity (the work done), instead of demand (the work coming in). This leads to a lack of understanding of capacity constraints.
  • Are your performance management measures used for improvement, rather than judgement? Their purpose should be to prevent errors and improve processes, not to find culprits when things go wrong.
  • What actions occurred as a consequence of any process analysis? Good systems thinking practice is often characterised by fast decision-making and process change. Decision by committee isn’t conducive to systems thinking.
  • Is system design a top-down or bottom-up process at your organisation? System design is at its most effective when it involves the people who know the system best: frontline staff and service users.

Case study: The NHS winter crisis

The 2014-15 Accident & Emergency winter crisis brings to light many of the organisational issues and challenges outlined above. It’s a textbook example of a ‘whole-system’ problem – and one where a lack of systems thinking has meant a failure to identify its root causes.

During winter 2014-15, only 86% of patients passed through A&E in four hours or less. This was significantly below the government’s 95% target, and a much greater shortfall than in previous winters.

Yet demand for A&E services rose only 2% year-on-year during that time. Such a marginal increase shouldn’t tip any system into critical failure – especially when seasonality is entirely predictable.

So why did the crisis happen? Why do winter crises keep happening? And why do they seem to get worse each year?

The issues at hand

A&E is, of course, just one part of the enormous, infinitely complex NHS system. Demand for A&E services, and the capacity to provide them, depends on other parts of the hospital, and on other institutions within the health service: GP surgeries, community health and social care services, the 999 and 111 phone lines, and so on.

Perhaps inevitably in such an intricate system, there’s no common view of the whole, and no shared vision of what everyone’s trying to achieve.

Each department is run separately, with its own objectives, pressures, budgets and targets. So clinical leaders rarely observe the patient journey end-to-end, and can lack visibility of potential failure points across the system.

The four-hour A&E waiting target brings its own challenges. As a yardstick to gauge flow capacity, it is an effective measure. But it’s widely considered – within and beyond the NHS – as a reflection of performance. It’s used simply as a ‘line in the sand’ between success and failure.

The upshot is that measures to improve A&E departments that miss the 95% target focus largely on the units in question. They fail to address issues elsewhere in the system which contribute to the problem. And they encourage short-term optimisation of A&E resources, rather than long-term solutions to the wider problem.

At the same time, demand for A&E services isn’t properly understood. There’s an assumption that more people, with more complex health problems, attend A&E units during winter. But the data proves otherwise. Admissions are actually higher in the summer, while the number of patients with complex problems doesn’t generally vary from season to season.

In reality, what lies at the heart of the A&E winter crisis is a system-wide supply problem. The flow capacity of the health service as a whole isn’t being appropriately planned.

Flow capacity reduces across most of the NHS during winter, as managers, clinical staff and support workers take their Christmas breaks. This puts more pressure on storage capacity, in the form of beds, so the whole system ends up getting jammed.

The wrong solutions

This lack of systems thinking is driving actions and decisions that don’t alleviate the problem.

Firstly, when planning service capacity, senior managers tend to look at only one aspect of supply: storage capacity. Making sure there are enough beds is of course essential; but a closer look at flow capacity would identify the impact that Christmas holidays have on the system’s ability to perform in winter.

Other commonly used tactics suggest a lack of understanding of the nature of demand for health services. Take the ring-fencing of resources, for example. GP surgeries might dedicate a half-day a week to seeing only children or elderly patients, even though this doesn’t relate to demand – it doesn’t reflect when people fall ill and need to see their doctor.

And as a winter crisis emerges, under-pressure A&E wards may go into firefighting mode, transferring patients who’ve spent four hours in their department to elsewhere within the system. This simply moves the workload – it doesn’t solve it.

NHS managers may also reallocate beds from other parts of the hospital to A&E. Or they might try to deflect demand, channelling patients elsewhere to relieve the strain. But both of these approaches reduce capacity in other parts of the system.

Finally, NHS leaders have a tendency to create overly complex solutions to problems. One trust ended up with over seventy different queueing priority systems in place in an attempt to manage urgent demand. A lack of coordination can also leave attempts to improve the system disjointed, overloading staff with conflicting workloads. At one point, for example, there were some 86 improvement projects running simultaneously within the NHS.

Understanding and action

In order to tackle the underlying causes of the winter crisis, NHS leaders need a thorough understanding of:

  • how the different components of the health service interact with each other
  • the true levels of demand coming into the system at each entry point
  • how work flows through the NHS system
  • the difference between flow and storage capacity
  • the amount of each capacity type available to each component of the system at any one time
  • how the system itself can cause variations in demand and capacity
  • how these variations can result in delays and waits for treatment

Based on this detailed view of the system, leaders then need to consider taking the following actions:

  • create medium and long-term strategies to guarantee the capacity to meet demand in every part of the system, at the right time, without unnecessary delay
  • measure process behaviour in real time
  • use journey-time measures to assess where delays are being generated
  • address the causes of these delays
  • allow frontline staff to develop detailed knowledge of the system they work in
  • encourage continuous system improvement, based on sound process analysis and established methodologies such as ‘plan-do-check-act’.

In summary

Many operations in the public and private sectors can be viewed as complex, adaptive systems. As such, typical command-and-control approaches to running them fail to understand their nature. They’re not equipped to identify the root causes of any performance issues, or encourage sustainable, effective process improvement.

The NHS’ winter A&E crises – and the way they’re handled – are a case in point. They are the symptoms of a ‘whole-system’ problem, but are addressed locally, which fails to get to grips with the underlying causes.

A systems-based approach can help overcome such shortcomings. Properly executed, systems thinking provides a view of the whole organisation, its work flows and processes, and its demand and supply parameters. This helps make clear why services might be failing to deliver what they should.

But there are certain challenges that typically get in the way of systems thinking. Leaders must adopt the right management style and behaviours. They must take time to understand their processes from their customers and frontline employees’ standpoints. And they must embed the necessary skills across their workforces.

Only then can they gain the systems perspective required to truly maximise organisational performance.