Breakthrough thinking in Systems Methodologies

A new variation of soft systems methodology has been developed by Gerald Nadler and Shozo Hibino. It was introduced in their book Breakthrough Thinking (1990) and is a total, holistic approach to problem solving. The authors state that it combines the best of the visionary and the pragmatic approaches to problem solving and problem prevention. Their concept of the environment in which they have to implement their thinking is free from most illusions. The following quotation from the book gives a good example.

‘You want to get started with Breakthrough Thinking. 1 don’t give a damn what book you read. All I know or care about is that the billing department overtime is up, costs are high, quality is low, and our mailings are always late. Don’t waste my time with fancy theories. I want you to go out there and get the facts on that department. Gather all the information. 1 want to subdivide this problem into its component parts and analyze the data you come up with. That’s the only way that 1 can make an informed decision.’

Their starting point is that people and organizations need an understanding of the purposes, not the problems, in order to move ahead and be successful. Furthermore, it is even necessary to ask what the purposes are of those purposes. Profit, for example, is only a measure how well a company fulfils a purpose; profit is not the company’s mission.

The backbone of the methodology is the seven principles of breakthrough thinking. These should be applied in a coordinated and holistic manner, that is, all the principles should be used simul- taneousely rather than consecutively. Furthermore, each principle recurs at a different point in the problem-solving effort. The principles and their application have been summarized from the book in the following arrangement.

The uniqueness principle: Whatever the apparent similarities, each problem is unique and requires an approach that deals with its own contextual needs.

  1. No two situations are alike.
  2. Each problem is embedded in a unique array of related problems.
  3. The solution to a problem in one organization will differ from the intended solution to a similar problem in another organization.

The purposes principle: Focusing on purposes helps to strip away non-essential aspects in order to avoid working on the wrong problem.

  1. Identify stakeholders from whom you want to learn about needs and purposes.
  2. Ask questions that expand purposes.
  3. Create an array of purposes or intended functions.
  4. Set up criteria for selecting the function level.
  5. Select the function level.
  6. Designate performance measures or objectives for the selected purpose.

The solution-after-next principle (SAN): Innovation can be stimulated and solutions made more effective by working backwards from an ideal target solution.

  1. Identify regularities to consider in developing a solution.
  2. Develop as many ideas as possible about how you might achieve your selected purpose or a bigger purpose in your goal hierarchy.
  3. Organize your ideas into major alternative solutions or systems. Incorporate as many good ideas as you can into each alternative. Each major alternative should be able, on its own, to achieve your purpose and should contain specific strategies for doing so.
  4. Add detail and additional ideas to each alternative as needed to ensure its workability and your ability to measure its effectiveness.
  5. Select your target solution-after-next by evaluating each major alternative.
  6. Try to make your target solution-after-next even more ideal.
  7. Develop modifications to the solution-after-next to incorporate the irregularities. Add the details to arrive at a recommended solution.

The systems principle: Every problem is part of a larger system. Understanding the elements and dimensions of a system matrix lets you determine in advance the complexities you must incorporate in the implementation of the solution (regarding the systems matrix, see Figure 11.2).

  1. Assume that the system matrix is empty when you start a project. Start with the purpose of the system and the project.
  2. Think in terms of elements first, then expand each element as needed by the dimensions.
  3. Transfer any detailing activity from the whole system matrix to individual ones for an element, dimension, or cell if the complexity of the whole becomes too great.
  4. Establish the system matrix as a language of communications in networks of like-minded people (meetings, roundtables, etc.).
  5. Convert the system matrix into the format used by your orga­nization. A strategic business plan used by a company can be enhanced by system matrix elements and dimensions.
  6. Find causes and relationships.
  7. Provide an integrating and coordinating framework to handle the many available techniques, tools, and analysis models (cause-effect diagram, statistical control, critical success factors, mathematical programming, chaos theory, optimization modelling, multi­attribute decision analysis, spreadsheets, etc.).
  8. Get people to be quality- and productivity-minded in total systems terms.

The limited information collection principle: Knowing too  much about a problem initially can prevent you from seeing some excellent alternative solutions. This principle serves to focus attention on information that is particularly useful and relevant for the other Breakthrough Thinking principles.

  1. Answer questions raised by the development of the solution- after-next for the problem.
  2. Use the information and knowledge in the heads of many people doing different work.
  3. Ask how an idea or SAN could be made operational.
  4. Ask what you would do with the information if it was available in, say, three months.
  5. Have a prepared mind, not an empty head.
  6. Share information with everyone, not just with an elite coterie.
  7. Seek needed information from a wide variety of sources.
  8. Study the system matrix of the SAN or recommended solution.
  9. Use models and quantitative techniques.
  10. Use computer bibliographies, networks, search routines and databases.
  11. Decide what information to collect.

The people design principle: The  people who will carry  out  and use a solution must work together in developing the solution with Breakthrough Thinking. The proposed solution should include only the minimal, critical details, so that the users of the solution can have some flexibility in applying it.

  1. Try it. Believe in the solution. Talk to people.
  2. Hold an informal team meeting during a lunch gathering, etc.
  3. Set up a one-time meeting with people who might constitute a good long-term project team.
  4. Set up a one-time meeting to plan the problem-solving system using the Breakthrough Thinking principles.
  5. Allow for the catharsis of finger-pointing, superficial diagnosis, turf protection and other defensive routines that people are likely to engage in when they first meet on a project.
  6. Get the people you involve to be customer-driven and market- oriented through the larger purposes in the array.
  7. Involve different people, depending on whether your purpose is to improve an existing system that is in trouble, better a system that is in good shape, or create a new product or service.
  8. Include a person or two previously successful at breaking the rules.
  9. Include a person or two with a liberal arts bias.
  10. Use existing groups. Organizations that have a commitment to teamwork are well positioned to change to Breakthrough Thinking.
  11. Keep the energy level high for the Breakthrough Thinking principles, not for initial judging.
  12. Seek ways to attain recognition for individuals and groups who have made major breakthroughs.

The betterment timeline principle: A sequence of purpose-directed solutions is a bridge to a better future.

  1. Incorporate the principle in the overall planning process of the organization rather than treat betterment activities on a separate project-by-project basis.
  2. Delegate and decentralize the responsibilities for betterment timeline activities.
  3. Use preventive maintenance (PM) for all systems or procedures in the betterment planning. A scheduling system should regularly examine and challenge jobs, units, departments, products, services, policies, etc.
  4. Calculate a value-of-change to cost-of-change ratio at the time of decision whether or not a planned change is worthwhile.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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