Seven Principles

Principle: P1 of fitness for purpose

The systems models should be of appropriate quality as to be fit for purpose. But check that the purposes include all purposes i.e. not just function but risk, safety, affordability, sustainability, resilience etc.

Principle: P2 of proper duty of care

A duty of care is a legal obligation to act to a reasonable standard. Not to do so is negligent. All players should have clearly defined appropriate responsibilities and be clearly accountable. Are the players competent to carry out their roles and functions?

Principle: P3 of integrating people, purposes, products, old processes to create better performances

Do the processes include:
a) Firming the foundations FF by:
FF Design – being curious, open minded, identifying issues,
FF Build – developing the vision, clarifying values,
FF Operation – reflecting, learning, understanding the models,
b) Strengthening the structures by:
SS Design – collaborating, creating relationships, defining responsibilities,
SS Build – building networks, getting advice, solving problems,
SS Operation – improving relationships, adapting,
c) Working well by:
WW Design – learning from evidence,
WW Build – being resourceful & resilient in making decisions,
WW Operation – creating and enhancing quality?

Principle: P4 of sufficient structure

Are the systems model processes:
sufficiently discriminatory – all terms are as distinct and as clear as required,
sufficiently consistent – the content of the model are compatible and not self-contradictory,
sufficiently cohesive – the content of the model are integrated so that it all hangs together,
sufficiently concordant – conflicts and differences of all kinds are identified with procedures to resolve or manage them?

Principle: P5 of sufficient content

Are the systems models:
balanced between contrasting pairs such as detail and overview, risk and opportunity etc.,
sufficient for the stated purposes i.e. contain the requisite detail,
necessary – i.e. do they contain all that must be contained;
locally important,
of requisite variety – content is widely applicable and appropriately diverse?

Principle: P6 of control

Are the processes:
being guided towards desirable outcomes
such that risks are being managed
from the uncertainties being identified and monitored
and the lessons being learned?

Principle: P7 of evidence

Evidence is an attribute of the ‘what’ of a process:
evidence is gathered both quantitatively and qualitatively such that timely decisions and interventions are made to keep processes on track towards purposeful outcomes

Systemic Processes

Systemic processes are central to my approach to systems thinking.

Everything – every object – exists in time. Therefore every object has a life cycle and is a process. But the process is set in the context of a system containing other connected processes – some at higher and some at lower levels of definition. We capture those processes using mind maps to create a processs model.

All processes have attributes that we characterise using why, how, who, what, where, when.


Why attributes include all expressions of sucess as purpose including vision, mission, objectives and targets.

How attributes include all models of transformations of inputs to outputs, including physical systems (scientific) models, method statements, systems models, resources requirements

Who attributes include all of the people involved – the players or actors- and their roles and functions. In particular the process owner is the leader responsible for the delivery of success to the client(s) and keeping all stakeholders informed of progress.

What attributes include all expressions (models) of structure and form, state variables, performance indicators, inputs and outputs as well as Italian Flags or any other summary measures of progress or performance.

Where attributes include definitions of systems boundaries, contextual assumptions as well as physical site or place as location.

When attributes include durations and times such as earliest/latest start, earliest/latest finish, float from e.g. a critical path network analysis.

These variables manifest tyemselves in physical hard systems as in the table below.

Physical hard System Potential






Electricity Volts Amps Resistance, capacitance, inductance
Mechanics Velocity Force Damping, mass, flexibility
Water pipes Pressure head Flow Drag, open tanks/reservoirs, closed tank?
Traffic Need Flow On-street parking, off-street parking, route changes
‘Soft’ Why – (Who, Ambiguity/conflict,
creative What, capacity to perform,
tension Where,


capacity to adapt/innovate

We can compare some hard system derivatives with speculative soft ones as in table below

Concept Hard – e.g. Mechanics Soft – suggested equivalent
Across Variable: Potential V


Velocity Motivation: The rate of change of willpower (self-control): volition for purposeful effective action
Through Variable: Flow q

(Who, What)

Force Rate of external change through action
Integrated V: x = ∫Vdt Displacement Will: strength of purpose
Differentiated V: y = dV/dt Acceleration Increasing motivation
Integrated q: z = ∫qdt Momentum Change
Power P = Vq Power The capacity to influence change: authority, means, competence, capability, proficiency
Work W = ∫qdx Effort Effort
Energy E = ∫Pdt Capacity for work Capacity for work
Capacitance Mass, inertia Ambition, aspiration, resoluteness as stored willpower
Inductance Flexibility Adaptability to change
Resistance Damping Prevarication and wasted effort

To most people a handbag is an object with ‘substance’ (the materials with which it was made) and form with some sense of permanence.  To a systems thinker of the type we are describing here a handbag is a process that plays a role in other processes.  Put at its simplest, the handbag has a life cycle in which it was conceived, designed, made and used and eventually disposed of.  Whatever it was designed to do (function) and whatever form it takes (e.g. as a fashion item) it is unlikely that it was designed to carry an abandoned baby as in the play ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ by Oscar Wilde premiered in 1895 .  Nevertheless in that role or function the handbag played a crucial part in keeping the infant Jack safe and, as revealed as the play unfolds. The handbag was important in his being abandoned, found and rescued and taken into a good family upbringing.

To understand what we mean here when we refer to a process we need to reject all existing preconceptions of what constitutes a process and to create a new and all encompassing definition.  So a new process is not just the how of doing as it is often used. It is not just an input being transformed to an output, or a Gantt bar chart, a recipe, a flowchart, a network of an IDEF0 diagram – it is all of these and more.

It is our contention that we can capture everything that we know (model) in processes.  A handbag, a kettle, a building, an aeroplane, a power station, an airport terminal and all living things, including human beings, can all be represented as processes.  In this way a systems thinker recognises from the start that everything has life cycle. But it is a life cycle that is set in the context of a system containing other processes – some at higher and some at lower levels of definition.

Why do we need holons?

WHY do we need holons?

The moon is a whole but also part of the solar system. Moonlight is an emergent property of the relationship between it, the sun and the earth


Start with a Mind Map

Tony Buzan invented mind maps as a simple tool for thinking through the issues relevant to a problem.

We use them to develop our process models. The technique is actually very simple. Let’s illustrate it here by writing a mind map for becoming a systems thinker based on our axioms. Our top level process –  the process we want to execute is Becoming a systems thinker. So we write that proposition at the centre of the diagram. If we think that our axioms are together logically necessary and sufficient for success in the process then they can be added to the diagram as below.

Notice that in every case we use the ‘ing’ form  – the present participle to give a sense of process and not just simply a statement or proposition.

Next we show an example of a mind map to develop the processes around the maintenance of a physical system like a highway.



The diagram is for illustration only and is not comprehensive as would be required in practice. Next for each process in the mind map we begin to write down the six important parameters of a process – why, how, who, what, where and when as illustrated above in the table.

To help you begin to see how mind map can be used quite generally across a range of systems below is an illustration of a hierarchy of layers of self-similar process loops as described on our process pages. They are Designing (D), Building (B) and Operating (O).



But these engineering terms (designing, building and operating) can be interpreted more generally and within different contexts. For example in the scientific method we see the conceptual equivalent to designing as conjecturing i.e. creating ideas. In engineering design is creating a new product/system whereas in science creating is conjecturing a new hypothesis or theory. In engineering building is the making of the idea into a physical reality that will be tested as it is developed and then used in practice. In science a hypothesis is tested in an experiment or against some specific criteria to see if it has some confirmation in reality. In engineering operating is using the product/system and finding out if it workd well. In science operating is the wider testing by many people together with its use in practice to find out how well it confirms explanations or predicts new results. Here the theory is evaluated and confirming or falsified. In both engineering and science much is learned from all three phases.

So thinking of the process of engineering designing much more generally we can suggest that in other contexts it is equivalent to sensing, perceiving, specifying, planning, conjecturing or wondering.

Likewise building is equivalent to manufacturing, thinking, reflecting, establishing, making, writing and testing.

And operating is equivalent to acting, using, doing, running, evaluating, experiencing or learning.

In this way we can begin to see how to integrate ideas and systems by synthesising similarities rather than analysing differences.