Addressing Complexity With Enterprise Systems Thinking

July 20, 2018

 

There are no simple answers regarding how to ‘solve’ complexity.  In fact, complexity can be a significant advantage if harnessed in the right way.  The Rype Health team sees the organization as a set of interrelated components working together toward some common objectives, in other words, we see the organization as a system.  As such, we apply systems thinking to understand complexity and systems engineering principles to design better operational systems.  

 

Systems thinking is a technique involving various modeling and analysis strategies for understanding the relationship between all components in a system. A system is a construct or collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the individual elements alone. The elements, or parts, can include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents — all things required to produce systems-level results (e.g., an inspiring customer experience). Organizations are systems, in that they require ways of combining and harmonizing features associated with the work flow - technologies, equipment, skills, know-how, communication of task information - with features associated with the human / social features - motivation, dealing with different interests, authority and status matters, equity and distribution issues. The source of complexity in enterprise systems is primarily the integration of a diversity of systems and processes.  

 

The following components must be integrated together under the inherent uncertainty of today’s enterprise:

 

  • Business strategy and strategic planning

  • Business processes

  • Enterprise services

  • Governance

  • Technical processes

  • People management and interactions

  • Knowledge management

  • Information technology infrastructure and investment

  • Facility and equipment management

  • Data and information management

 

Given the high degree of complexity, many problems faced by companies today are unsolvable by any single discipline. Systems engineering emphasizes a systems thinking approach, which allows you to cross disciplines and analyze and understand relationships between various sub-components of a given system. This provides for the design and implementation of solutions that span disciplines (e.g., clinical development, commercial, information management, finance, human resources, etc.) and considers all aspects of the workflow or project/product lifecycle.

 

A major system development project is a veritable “Tower of Babel”.  There are dozens of specialists from different parts of the organization whose collective efforts are necessary to develop and produce a successful new system.  Each group of specialists has its own language to convey specific meanings backed up by knowledge bases, but are unintelligible to those outside the specialty.  It becomes extremely difficult to achieve collective success in developing a new system by themselves, just as the citizens of Babylon could never build their tower.  Systems engineers provide the linkages that enable these disparate groups to function as a team.  Understanding the relationship between various components and how to organize and manage them in an efficient way is where systems engineering comes into play.

 

The ambiguity of the scope of a system can be overwhelming, therefore we apply a basic system engineering technique to create a more specific model of the system in terms of its constituent parts.  The purpose of this model is to define a relatively simple and readily understood system architecture, which can serve as a point of reference for discussing the process of developing a new system.  The model acknowledges the hierarchical structure of systems and informs the identification of architectural levels (systems, subsystems, components, subcomponents, parts).  The degree of granularity must be sufficient to recognize such factors as program risks, technological performance limits, interfacing requirements and to make trade-off analyses among design alternatives.  

 

It is also critical to identify the system’s boundaries precisely, that is, to define what is inside the system and what is outside.  Medical Affairs can be viewed as a subsystem within the broader organization.  Many systems have failed due to flawed assumptions about what is internal and what is external, and different departments tend to define boundaries differently, even with similar systems.  

 

A complex system that performs a number of different functions must of necessity be configured in such a way that each major function is embodied in a separate component capable of being specified, developed, built, and tested as an individual entity.  Such a subdivision takes advantage of the expertise of organizations specializing in particular types of products, and hence is capable of engineering and producing components of highest quality at lowest cost.  While recognizing the importance of specialization, it is important to integrate the disparate parts into an efficient, smoothly operating system to achieve optimal results, where each building block fits perfectly with internal and external environment and that the fit is functional and produces results that are accomplished at inter-component boundaries.  Specialized design is one dimensional in that it has great technical depth, but little technical breadth and little management expertise to view the system as a whole.  On the other hand, planning and control is two dimensional; it has great management expertise but moderate technical breadth and small technical depth.  However, systems engineering is three dimensional; it has great technical breadth, as well as moderate technical depth and management expertise to tackle complex issues from a holistic view.

 

An approach to understanding the environment, process and policies of a systems problem requires one to use systems thinking.  This approach to a problem examines the domain and scope of the problem and defines it in quantitative terms.  One looks at the parameters that help define the problem and then, through research, develops observations about the environment and the problem exists in and finally generates options that could address the problem.  The systems engineering viewpoint is focused on producing a successful system that meets requirements and development objectives, is successful in operation in the field, and achieves its desired operating life.  Superior performance must be balanced with affordability and other constraints, and achieve a balance among conflicting objectives.  Systems are subdivided into subsystems, then components, subcomponents, and finally, parts.  And as modern systems grow in complexity, the number, diversity and complexity of these lower-level subsystems, components and parts increase.  The interactions between these entities also increase in complexity.  Systems engineering principles and their applied practices are designed to deal with this complexity.  Ultimately it comes down to one question, when it comes to solving complex problems, this is our approach, what is yours?

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