inSchool Solutions

 School Improvement:  Systems Thinking
Working Together Easier First Implementation Action Plan Imperatives About RPS


Site Index

Other topics

Site Index
About Quality
What's New?
School Improvement
Sustained Improvement
About Schools
Fundamental Notions
Systems Thinking
School Systems
System Improvement
About this site
Ivan Webb
For Principals
LSN Maths Extended



More on this topic

Information systems
Model Systems
Developing Systems
More on Systems

Why think in terms of Systems?
Human beings create systems to solve three problems in terms of their success and well-being

  • To understand our experiences
  • To help ensure that important things are achieved
  • To make it easier to achieve these important things


This is all possible because a systems view greatly increases our capacity to 

  • Analyse (study and check)
  • Design (plan: what is to be achieved and how)
  • Develop (make the design practical)
  • Implement (make our initiatives part of our endeavours)
  • and Continuously Improve what we are doing


Systems Thinking
Systems exist as mental constructs in people's minds. Thinking in terms of systems helps us make sense of complex situations over time. We attempt to build 'working models' of what we are dealing with. This means we are trying to understand and describe the connections between

  • people
  • purposes
  • resources (time, knowledge, effort, $, facilities...)
  • processes
  • tasks
  • actions
  • outputs
  • outcomes


Continuous Improvement
Thinking is terms of systems is essential so that we can implement continuous improvement, viz, so that we can

  • plan (design, arrange, schedule, train, ...)
  • do
  • study and
  • act to improve  (redesign, rearrange, reschedule, retrain, ...)


Dealing with Complexity
As human activities have become more complex and the environments in which humans operate have become relatively less supportive so it has been necessary to create new and improved systems to solve the problems that arise.

Many economic, social and natural phenomena can be better understood in terms of systems.

Education is clearly delivered, at least in part by 'school systems'. And there are systems operating with schools, classrooms, and even within the people participating in the educational processes.


Everyone works in a system
And systems determine 85-95% of what is achieved: good, bad or indifferent!! It is common  for this proposition to be rejected by staff on the basis of "What about us !?!".
It can be useful to consider that while we create systems to help us achieve they also largely  determine what we subsequently achieve. We create systems and then we have to work  within them. 
If systems determine 85-95% of what we achieve what are the implications for staff appraisal  !?!


Systems have parts

  • contributors (suppliers)
  • contributions (inputs)
  • processes: central & supporting
  • products and/or services (outputs)
  • recipients (customers)

Each part of a system is an opportunity for improvement


Warning !!! Quality optimises the system as a whole not individual parts of the system. Optimising each part of the system simultaneously fails to optimise the system. Consider an orchestra: every instrument playing loudly through the entire performance would not be a quality (delightful) experience.

Effective systems are purposeful. They have

  • A mission: a known purpose 
  • A vision of how things should be
  • A set of values as a basis for responding, eg, approval, rejection,...

In managing systems quality uses improvement first (and changes things when there is no other alternative). Change is competitive, costly & disruptive.

System change 
There are three key questions

  • What to change?
  • What to change to?
  • How to cause the change? (Goldratt)


Systems may be unstable
Systems and the processes within may, or may not, be under control. Systems are not  manageable (cannot be improved) until they are brought under control. Unstable systems may have

  • Faulty processes
  • Untrained or misinformed people
  • Too many disruptions from outside


Stabilise the system before trying to improve it, 

  • Get class or school routines working before attempting to improve the curriculum
  • Eliminate special causes of variation: encourage the pet owner to improve their fences and make arrangements with the local council for prompt collection of any visiting dogs if necessary


The process of bringing a system under control is to

  1. Make the system explicit so that there is wide spread, shared understanding of it
  2. Reduce the incidence and impact of special causes of variation 
  3. Work on the system to reduce the common causes of variation, and
  4. Remove unnecessary activities
  5. Improve the effectiveness of the system
  6. Implement continuous improvement (plan-do-study-act).

Everyone and everything (teachers, other staff, parents, bus drivers, students, the Department, community, profession...and facilities, equipment, materials, policies, culture, practices,...) are all part of "the School" as a system.



  • It is wise to value (and utilise) the knowledge that people have about their part in the scheme of things.
  • We should be cautious about making value judgements about the people with whom we work. 
  • We work in very complex situations in which very few individuals have sufficient control to genuinely be responsible for the system. 


Action: Change from control, isolation & assessment to team building. Effective teams work in the same system and share responsibility for to management and development