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© Transition Support  Last Edit 16/03/2018 09:29:00 

Management system

Systematic or systemic

Traditionally, the term ‘management system’ is used to describe a means to direct and control an organization and in this sense of the term it’s role in the organization is as a tool. We could therefore define this ‘tool’ in terms of its function and its constituent parts.

This type of management system appears to be an orderly way of doing something where the people applying these policies and procedures etc are outside this system. Some definitions of the term ‘management system’ include resources but it’s not clear whether people are included as they are not cited.

The word system is used in an increasing variety of ways to express ideas in different contexts. From the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary there are two basic uses of the word ‘system’ and an orderly way of doing something is indeed one of the most common uses of the word. However, for a management system to produce results it has to be dynamic i.e. the people using the tools to produce the results have to be part of the system and a type of system which is dynamic is one which connects objects together to form a complex whole and from the above dictionaries, this is the other use of the word system.  

The following illustration shows these two uses of the term system:

A gardener uses a systemic weed killer to kill every part of the plant because all its parts are interconnected and he proceeds to apply the weed killer systematically to all the weeds in the garden. Systematic means doing things in an orderly way, following a method, whereas systemic is not at all about the way things are done but about the interconnectedness amongst entities and the effect that has on the whole.

Taking a systemic perspective

When we look at something within a defined boundary and see a person working we see activity. When we stand back and see a sequence of activities producing outputs we are observing a process.  When we look at the same things and see the buildings, the people, the relationships, the flow of information and the interactions we are observing a system.  We zoom in and out to select the object of interest.  There is a limit to what we can capture so as we zoom in we lose sight of all the elements outside our range and therefore from a single activity or process we cannot see what the system does and is why the output of a system is more than the sum of its parts. The output of a system is produced by the interaction of the parts and not by the parts acting independently. The parts are affected by being in the system and the system is changed if they leave i.e. it won’t deliver the same output in the same way.

If we are looking at the organization and trying to locate a dynamic management system we are unlikely to see an object that everyone refers to as the management system because it’s not a physical entity. There will be elements that we can see but we won’t be able to see the whole. We also won’t know what it looks like until we capture in our mind or as a model the tangible and intangible components over which the organization has control or influence that produce the business results. Until we do this there is nothing that qualifies as a management system. Another person may look at the organization from the same perspective but not see all the same components due to the complexity of the organization.

When we look at this complex arrangement of buildings, workshops, offices, people, machines, activity, documents etc. we will see the tangible elements but there are many things we don't see, such as the spread of discontent, the effect of a dispute between colleagues, or the consequences of an authoritarian style of management but if they impact the results we can’t ignore them.  However, we must be selective because we can’t capture everything; we pick out the things that we believe are relevant to our system of interest and put these in our model of the organization’s management system.

What we end up with is a systemic perspective of the organization because we have looked at the whole and tried to capture those elements that influence the business results.

Defining the management system

If we consider a system to be a representation of reality from a particular perspective, a management system would be a systemic view of an organization from the perspective of how it determined and delivers its business results. A quality management system would be a systemic view of an organization from the perspective of how it creates and retains its customers and conversely, an Environmental Management System would be a systemic view of an organization from the perspective of how it protects the natural environment.

Therefore to define any management system what we do is look at the organization from a systemic perspective and pick out the elements that we believe strongly influence what we want that specific management system to manage.

For further explanation of management systems terminology see

Quality Management Systems

What is the difference between a system and a process?

What's the difference between a documented system and a system of documentation?

More details are in Chapter 8 of the ISO 9000 Quality Systems Handbook 7E