What is a Work System?
In his book “The New Economics”, Dr. W. Edwards Deming defined a system as being “a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.” In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge, who was a disciple of Deming, adds that systems are “invisible fabrics of interrelated actions which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other.” The human body for example, consists of many different systems – respiratory, circulatory, neurological, etc. – which allow us to exist and live each day. Freeway systems consist of on and off ramps, shoulders, traffic lanes, and signage that work together to help guide traffic to its destination. Work systems exist in a similar sense, even though we may not be aware of their design or of the different aims that they are actually designed to accomplish. In many cases, we simply come to work each day and do things as they have been done by others before us, as well as ourselves, without giving much thought to why we are doing things this way or if the actual results (the real aims) our different systems are producing are consistent with the aims we have stated as desiring..
My operational definition of a system is also based on the use of the term “systematic” in the Malcolm Baldrige National Performance Excellence Award criteria. That definition refers to “approaches that are well-ordered, repeatable, and use data and information so that improvement and learning are possible.” I would say that in most organizations, their work systems are repeatable, even though the results they provide are not actually measured. Unfortunately, the processes that are being repeated each day as a part of a given work system are (1) NOT producing the types of results that are truly desired, (2) NOT being executed in a similar, well-ordered manner across all people and work groups, and (3) NOT using trended data to gauge process performance so that key problems can be identified for the purpose of learning, resolution, and in turn, improvement.
For example, most companies have a planning system that can be defined by looking at the patterns of behaviors that are used to arrive at organizational plans of different types. Different departments or leaders may use a set of processes however to arrive at their plans that is inconsistent with the ones that others in their company use, and few actually measure the effectiveness of their planning process so that it can be further improved over time. They have a planning system, but that planning system is not systematic. I have unfortunately found that in most organizations, this can be also be said for the daily leadership, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, training, measurement, hiring, and other key work systems that are used. Worst of all, because these key work processes are not well ordered or effectively measured, they are waste laden, with one the key waste streams being the limited time each of us has to devote to our work each day.
LEARN More: Evaluating Root Cause Analysis Processes