Systems Thinking for ITSM

by Martin Stewart, on 15-Oct-2017 17:04:00

Systems thinking could be described as a movement. It has been around for a long time, in various forms, but is only now gaining real traction in the wider world of business. It started in the 1950s, when William Edwards Deming used a systematic approach to improving manufacturing in Japan, giving his name to the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle that is commonly used to drive continual improvement of processes and products in industry. Since then, a number of people have pushed the systems thinking bandwagon forward. Now, it has a small but dedicated – and growing - band of followers who believe, absolutely, in this new methodology. And they are probably right to do so. They call themselves systems thinkers and have something of a “them-and-us” attitude towards traditional command-and-control managers.

 So what is systems thinkingA new way of thinking? A methodology for optimisation? A cult? Or all of the above? And how does it apply to ITSM?


What is it?

Systems thinking certainly is a new way of thinking. A whole new approach that goes against many of the traditional management practices. One of the main principles of systems thinking is that you should examine old habits and assumptions objectively to identify which parts of a system (or in the case of ITSM, we’re talking about a service) are valuable and which are wasteful or counterproductive. So what are these ‘parts’ we’re talking about? Processes, policies, practices, tools and people - including the business user.

 The service customer is the most important part of a service delivery system. All of these moving parts interlink and interact throughout the process of serving an IT customer, so they need to be examined objectively to identify where the value lies and where the waste is. It’s essentially a cathartic paradigm shift. Sweep out the old practices that aren’t working, and look at new ways of doing things – no matter how counter-intuitive they might seem. If one thing is for certain, it is that the systems thinking approach uncovers a lot of counter-intuitive truths. Hence, it is considered by many legacy thinkers to be disruptive. Systems thinking has a methodology. There are principles and a method. There are tools and best practices. It isn’t ethereal. Systems thinking has been used in organisations across all industries to drive improvements that managers wouldn’t have dreamed to be possible. It is inherently practical and it has but one purpose – improve the way things are done by understanding how they are done and identifying how they can be done better. The key words for systems thinkers are objective andunderstanding – gaining real knowledge, not assumed knowledge. The way you think your services work may not be the way they actually work. This is where the real value of systems thinking is to be found. Gaining real knowledge of how a service works – and fails - enables you to make positive interventions that lead to real improvement of the service. It’s fundamentally about making better decisions on how you design, manage and improve your services. In many organisations, decisions are frequently made on shaky foundations: legacy thinking, biased opinion, inappropriate metrics and guess-work. Systems thinking is about taking the guess-work out of service management. Study your services. Get to know them. Roll your sleeves up. Get your hands dirty. Follow individual issues from end to end. Get outside of the IT department and go and talk to the end user face-to-face. Work through a stack of Incidents, Problems and Changes until you see the patterns forming. Find out where unexpected behaviours are happening. Find out where the failures are. Find out what the true impact it – on the broader service ecosystem of the business as a whole. This is the sort of understanding that service managers should have. Commitment to studying the system is required, but the pay-off is a solid foundation for managing service quality upward, and driving service cost downward.

 The systems thinking movement certainly does have some of the elements of a cult.  Systems thinking offers answers – access to “great knowledge and truths”. But instead of being esoteric knowledge hidden by the ages, it is useful, practical knowledge about your own business that can help you improve your systems of service provision. Every cult has a leader, and the systems thinking movement has its fair share. Deming might be considered the high priest. A quick search on Google and YouTube will turn up thousands of impassioned blogs and videos on “The Deming Way”. Of course, William Edwards Deming died in 1993 and since then a number of leaders of the systems thinking movement have continued to lead the charge – Peter Senge, John Seddon and Taiichi Ohno, the father of the renowned Toyota Production System. The systems thinking method is, to systems thinkers, beyond reproach. Systems thinkers will defend the method passionately. And there is a certain level of animosity between systems thinkers (the initiated) and the “traditionalists” (the uninitiated).

 What does systems thinking mean to ITSM?

So what does systems thinking mean to ITSM? Service management is inherently complex. Each service is a system of delivery which combines people, processes, practices, policies and tools. All of these elements are fitted together to take inputs (e.g. a service request) and deliver a desired output (e.g. the service). Let’s face it – managing services is difficult. With so many linkages and interactions, flowing across so many siloed departments, failure happens on a daily basis. Why? IT often doesn’t understand the purpose of the service from the customer’s perspective. Work flows from team to team, unaccompanied by all the information that the receiving team needs to progress the process. Services are run from a cost perspective, not a value perspective. And problem-solving knowledge is deliberately distanced from both the customer and IT in order to prevent access to “expensive” Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). The principles of systems thinking can help IT solve these problems and provide better services at a lower cost for a happier, more productive business.

Study the system

One of the principles of systems thinking is about gaining knowledge and understanding about how the whole system works. That means IT people need to take the blinkers off and look at the bigger picture. The business picture. This means considering the user perspective from end to end. IT might look at their own internal IT metrics and think they’re doing a great job. Customer satisfaction metrics frequently disagree. The service desk might be hitting its call-time targets, but if the user has to make six calls to the service desk to get what they want, there’s a problem. Productivity is reduced and costs are inflated. Systems thinking is about looking at a service in the context of the whole ecosystem, with a number of perspectives and layers of context – the business, the end user, the IT department, the service delivery team, the support team and the leadership. Each of these groups has n agenda for self-preservation. Systems thinking  focuses on the bigger picture – achieving purpose.

Understand the flow

Service delivery processes are complex and involve many linkages and interactions. Service managers need to ask specific questions to understand the flow. What happens at these interactions? Does information flow support the activity that follows? Does the next man in the supply chain have everything they need to get to work, or do they need to pick up the phone? When a business user submits a request from a service catalogue, have they been asked to supply all of the information that IT needs to service that request? If so, the flow is clean. If not, the lack of information will stop the process later on. Time will need to be taken to contact the customer for more information and costs are incurred on both sides. The key to optimised ITSM is in service design, not an efficient service support system to deal with the fall-out. Design the right service and design the service right, and you can eliminate many of the problems at source. Bad design is the root cause of a root cause. Good, clean flow is the key to service delivery that runs smoothly and efficiently and gets business people the outcomes they need, fast.

Manage value, not cost

Manage to maximise value, not minimise cost. If you manage costs, you take the focus away from the service as a value-driver. By looking at the system as a whole, you begin to understand where cost savings in one area create costs in another. There are many examples of this seen in the area of service management. If you don’t spend the time on service design and testing, you create a substandard service and a flood of calls coming in to the service desk. Money is saved by the team managing the service delivery, but the savings coming from cutting corners are outweighed by the support costs incurred by the service desk. According to a report in The Economist “C-Suite Challenges IT: New Expectations for Business Value”, executives in companies that focused on generating revenue were more positive about their company’s ability to reduce costs than those that were in companies that prioritized cost-cutting. Failure demand (AKA demand that is driven by a failure in the service) is manifested in ITSM as Incidents, Problems and re-active Changes, and accounts for 70-80% of the service desk’s activity. You can’t stop everything from going wrong, but much of this workload is work that should never have needed to be done. If services were designed with a better understanding of the purpose, demand and capability needed to support that demand – the system of delivery would be both flexible and robust enough to handle value demand (e.g. service requests) without creating failure demand that ties up resources in the service desk. Through the application of Systems Thinkingto IT Service Management, IT managers can find and tackle the issues which are holding back IT productivity and innovation, and put the IT department on the map as a business contributor. Focus on the purpose and creating value. Study the system. Understand flow. Examine the validity of the old assumptions. Roll up your sleeves and get to know your services in the context of the ecosystem in which they live.



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