Tag Archives: socio-technical systems

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Applying Social-Political-Technical Design to any Purpose no Matter How Complex

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Intra-organization Design

This article is part of a series of reflections on the Global Network Annual Conference. To view the previous article, click here.

For the final panel of the conference — intra-organization design — we were invited to literally roll up our sleeves and do some dirty work. Awaiting us on the opposite side of the room were impeccably set up tables laden with art materials, each one attended to by an art facilitator dressed in a spotless, brand-new apron. The main facilitator attentively read the instructions to the activity from a cue card, then invited us to don our own spotless, brand-new apron, form groups and join one of the art facilitators at a table to await step-by-step instruction. The task was to explore our creativity by creating a group painting starting from a piece of instrumental music; the art facilitators’ role was to assist us in this task, a role they embodied mainly by carefully giving instructions one step at a time, managing access to materials, and more importantly, by giving us tips and techniques to perfect our final product.

As a student of Human Systems Intervention, I caught on to what was going on — at least for myself — very early on. After a few ‘teachable moment’ interventions from the art facilitator to ‘help’ us ‘perfect’  our group painting, I found my self-awareness kicking in; I was irritated, confused, and tempted to withdraw from the process. I felt the tension between the need for freedom to experiment and what I perceived as the restrictive, rigid and invasive presence of the well-intentioned facilitator. Wasn’t our painting good enough? I liked it just as it was, but I went along with each suggested ‘improvement’ although I had no idea what the end goal was.

I took a deep breath and tried to participate without being hindered by my feelings of inadequacy, but truth must be told, my creativity was definitely taxed as I increasingly felt as if I had to reach some unstated, and in my mind unattainable, standard.

During the debrief, my group mates reported having had different reactions to the facilitator’s interventions, some were positive, but most were either negative or ambivalent. Then Jacinthe shared an ‘a-ha’ moment with the group: ‘Is it possible that the people we work with as consultants feel the same way we felt just now?’

It was a glorious moment of self-awareness. STS seeks to involve workers in the design of an organization and its decision-making processes as well as foster continuous improvement and innovation. In participating in various groups, teams and committees, workers are invited to work among experts and other authority figures as equals.  We had just witnessed — rather experienced — the subtle impact of the way we as practitioners embody these underlying principles and values of our field on the people we work with and the overall outcome.

Looking back at the intra-organization session with the distance of time, I only now realize just how much I was unconsciously dragging my past experiences along with me and allowed myself to be triggered by the dissonance I perceived between the rigid structure of the activity (and those spotless aprons!!) and its purported goal of exploring creativity. On some deep level I was reading the message NOT to color outside the lines. But creativity, at least in my mind, is a happily messy process. And that gap affected my participation and ultimately the end results in ways, unfortunately, we will never know. This leaves me with some broad questions: how to integrate complexity theory with STS practice to engage the whole person in the design process? How to effectively flatten out the power differential between authority figures, experts and other members of the organization on both the conscious and unconscious levels?

Dena Duijkers,

HSI 2014

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Inter-organization Design – 2

Do you want to learn a provocative approach that unleashes everyone’s ability to design and create the futures we most want and need? Don’t miss the upcoming webinar (June 26th) on Positive Participative Innovation. More information here

Inter-organization Design – part 2

This article is part of a series of reflections on the Global Network Annual Conference. To view the previous article, click here.

Learning about the philosophy of the models (three beliefs: agility, transparency and integration) used to create Inter-organization design was really inspiring and gave me the opportunity to reflect on the complexity that it involves. It highlighted also the importance of using an STS Collaboration platform to build the trust needed when the different organizations need to define social and technical systems in an emergent way. The discussion about the Macondo Disaster also brought the same questions and urgency about  having a bigger vision — the eye that provides focus and responses that help to build not only collaboration, but  accountability and ethical behavior. Other important topics were the importance of value-driven collaboration, the high value of inviting and respecting the input of others (with a provocative invitation), identifying the stakeholders by their interests, and the design of a process to allow participants define what their shared purpose is (where the accountability is related to the purpose, not only to the task).

Marcela Urteaga,

HSI 2012

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Inter-organization Design

This article is part of a series of reflections on the Global Network Annual Conference. To view the previous article, click here.

This  was a particularly impactful part of the conference as I realized there was a name and place within STS for the work I do in the community sector: inter-organization design. Not only that, I also realized that other people within the network are doing similar work, and facing similar challenges.  It also meant to me that I belonged there at the conference and among the other participants. For the rest of the conference when others asked what kind of work I did, I started with the simple response: “I do inter-organization design.” And they understood what I meant. It was blissful! I discovered I am not alone; there are people I can connect with about the unique challenges of multi-stakeholder work, and the additional challenges of applying STS where the environment becomes more complex, and the nature of the work and workflow more difficult to define (we are not making car engines, we are attempting to make well-being!).

The beauty of inter-organization design is to tackle problems and issues that are beyond the scope of one single organization. Bringing together community organizations, government institutions, the private sector, and beyond, poses significant challenges when they all come to the table. The model presented by Carolyn was fascinating; I was in awe to see that other people had cared enough about both community and STS to put collective thought into creating a theoretical model based in STS and apply it to inter-organization design. I learn best when I can put theory to practice, and I was excited for the presentations that followed to help make sense of the abstract theoretical model. These examples were fascinating and inspiring. Being newbie to the STS conference and STS in general, I was relieved when I shared with the person sitting next to me that I had not managed to fully understand the model and she said she was in the same boat. Our impression was that the links between the conceptual model and the practical examples had not been clearly drawn. I was hungry to hash out these links and more thoroughly understand an STS model that I can apply to my community work. I am still very eager to tackle this and invite those who have a handle of it to contribute their understandings and increase our collective knowledge.

Carlye Watson,

HSI 2013

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Participation and Socio-Technical Systems

By Eli Berniker PhD

Participation is a major root in SocioTechnical Systems (STS) origins and practice. STS began when a group of coal miners, autonomously, met in a pub, decided to reorganize their work, and demanded that they get “a common pay chit.” This was a naturally occurring organizational experiment originating with them without consultants, managers, or researchers. The context was the mechanization of coal mining with conveyors and the implementation of work fragmentation and incentive pay for particular tasks. This was good “scientific management.” It did not work because coal mines did not have predictable work content and much work was expended on non-incentive tasks. Cornish mining competence goes back over a thousand years. The miners simply adapted that experience to organize their operation of the mechanized mine face and were very successful. In effect, they acted as a large cooperative subcontractor earning a common pay chit for the coal they delivered. We only know about the “experiment” because researchers got wind of it and gained permission to observe.

Participation Defined

Participation may be defined as group acts of sensemaking and/or decision making, separable from the typical hierarchical arrangements dictated by organization structures. Autonomous participation lives on in what is called the “informal organization” and around ubiquitous coffee machines. Facilitated participation has roots in the group process studies of Kurt Lewin and has been the central activity in Organization Development consultancy. Facilitated participation has organizational sanction with the limitations that such sanction requires.

Participation, usually facilitated, is an important principle in STS design practice for two reasons. It is understood as a central value and as a critical design principle. The distinction is significant.
Participation as a value defines a relationship to the people whose work is being designed. There is a long tradition of treating people who work as being less than human. Hannah Arendt noted the distinction in many languages between work and labor. Labor was associated with slavery, necessity, and unfreedom. Adam Smith noted that the division of labor removed from workers “the exercise” of “invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties” whose absence makes workers “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” F.W Taylor saw laboring work as more suitable for a “gorilla” or a “cart horse” than an intelligent human being. He describes a pig iron handler as “so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox.” Before World War I, it was common to advertise for “hands,” not people. The Division of Labor was explicitly a process imitated by manufacturers to control behaviors of laborers and liberate employers from dependence on their skills.

Participation as an STS Value

Participation, as a Socio-technical value, requires that people be actively engaged in inventing their own work lives. It expects workers to be agents in designing their future work organization as was the case with those coal miners in Durham, England. Participation might be understood as having workers as Origins, i.e. central actors in their own narratives rather than Pawns subject to imposed designs by others. Facilitation, under this value, becomes functional support rather than “empowerment.” Participation, as a Socio-technical value, recognizes human agency rather than granting it.

Alternatively, participation is a design principle. The Durham coal mine experiment provides a vivid example. Herbst studied the movements of the miners as work progressed in the coal getting cycle. As conditions changed along the mine face, the miners exhibited “task continuity.” No one told them what to do. They knew enough to undertake whatever next tasks were needed. In other words, the miners as a “team” readily redeployed themselves in terms of the contingent conditions of the mine face. Being very experienced miners and respected coworkers, they adapted their work very effectively. Operationally, that is a very valuable capacity. We cannot expect to replicate the long collective mining experience of Cornish miners.

Ask workers why they are executing a particular task in a particular way. Often the only answer is that is how they were told to do it. A group of workers so uninformed about their own roles and tasks is unable to redeploy when necessary. They can only follow orders. The fragmentation of work based on Taylor’s separation of thinking from doing is maladaptive since it reserves all adaptive functions for management.

Participative Design of Work

A condition for reorganizing a group’s efforts on the fly in the face of emergent conditions and demands is to have them participate in the design of their initial work organization. Fully understanding the assumptions that lead to the definition and allocation of their work roles and tasks empowers them to revise those deployments as needed. That capability only comes from participative design. That assertion can be readily tested.

Participative design develops remarkable adaptive capacities in work teams. That capacity grows with experience as problems are addressed and solved and learning is shared. Imposed designs cannot match that capacity since they must assume limited capacities, safety factors with respect to capacities, and the separation of learning from work.

In Socio-Technical Systems organization design, participation as both a value and as a design principle is conceptually separable but not functionally so. A focus on the value without empowering participants in a process of design becomes manipulation. A process of design without valuing participants is simply co-opting them. Our rich involvement in hierarchical organizations often blinds us to the conditions for effective meaningful participation.

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Lean Management: A Socio-Technical Systems Approach to Change

Let it be said that there are multiple paths to the same truth. Ancient tribes possessed knowledge of the environment and man’s place in the natural world that we are just now confirming through science.

The discovery of what works in the life of organizations, as in the life of society, may be discovered and described in many different and equally accurate ways. The world of management literature is populated by competing theories and sources of knowledge: Socio-technical systems, systems thinking, whole-systems theory, complexity and chaos theory, engagement, participation, and the currently most popular Toyota Production System or “lean management.” In all those words there is much that is common truth. Yet writers, consultants and managers seek the comfort of one path and one explanation. From the view of the practical manager it is easier to follow one book, one theory or set of practices. From the viewpoint of the academic or theorist, it is easiest to gain recognition by attaching yourself to one favored theory.

It is the habit of the Western intellectual mind to dissect, divide, disaggragate and separate parts of a whole into small pieces that can be put under the microscope and thereby lose the connections to the whole. In the world of the Lakota Sioux there is the Sacred Hoop with no point of beginning or end that represents the unity of all things. Below I am arguing for unifying that which is the practical experience of Toyota and others, with the theory and practice of socio-technical systems.  Each can learn from the other and they have much in common.

Unity of Thought: Theory and Practice

About twenty five years ago, Norman Bodek, an early proponent of “Japanese management,”  gave me an article by Lou Davis at UCLA on socio-technical systems. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments when something becomes obvious and useful. The theory of STS is simple and elegant. In every organization there are work or technical systems (the work process, task definitions, machinery, information flow); and, there are social systems, the “people” systems or culture that surrounds the work process. The social system includes how people are organized, the definition of jobs at each level, the decision making process, the systems of motivation, training and anything else that affects human performance. It seems rather obvious that the technical system and the social system are interdependent. Each impacts the other. It should then also seem obvious that each should be designed along with the other. They should be aligned and mutually supportive.

However, organizations often act in contradiction to simple truths. In most organizations these two systems have been designed independently and are misaligned, producing sub-optimal performance. Engineers design the flow of work, the placement of machinery, and define how the machinery will be used. The organization of people, the structure, the systems of motivation, are all designed by someone else who may have little appreciation for the demands of the work system. At the same time, the engineers may fail to understand the value of teamwork and the elements of intrinsic motivation so important to today’s work force.

Eric Trist, 1909-1933
Eric Trist, 1909-1933
In the early 1960’s an innovation in work systems was discovered by faculty (Eric Trist) and students (Ken Bamforth) at the Tavistock Institute in Great Britain. Ken Bamforth had worked in coal mines and as a doctoral student had been encouraged to return to his previous field of work to study their organization. What he discovered was a new seam of coal in which new technology was being applied and where the workforce had been allowed to develop their own system of organization and cooperation. Bureaucratic divisions of labor specialization and Taylorism had become the norm in coal mines. And with that came a 20% rate of absenteeism, high turnover and low productivity. But, in the new seam, in which the workers had designed much of their own system, productivity was high, absenteeism was low and cooperation among groups was evident. Studying this case Trist  concluded that the following principles were involved in the success:
  1. The work system, a functioning whole, now became the basic unit of focus rather than single tasks and jobs.

  2. The work group was central rather than the individual job-holder.

  3. Internal regulation of the work system by the work group was possible and effective, rather than the external regulation of individuals by supervisors.

  4. Work teams developed members who were multi-skilled, therefore more flexible and capable of self-regulation.

  5. The discretionary, rather than the prescribed, aspect of the work was valued.

  6. The team structure increased the variety of work done by individuals, thereby increasing intrinsic motivation.

From these observations emerged the theory and practice of socio-technical systems. The theory expanded to include not only the immediate work system, but the whole organizational system and the macro-social system that inevitably impacts the work of the organization and the behavior of its members. The theory recognized that every system is a sub-system of a larger system and no system can be understood without understanding its interaction with both the larger system and parallel systems.

In the coming years the theory and practice of STS would lead to the development of the first self-directed team plants in the United States (Gaines Topeka and others) and the thorough adoption of the method by Proctor and Gamble, Corning and other successful companies. Perhaps due to its academic sounding language or the failure of its leading figures to write popular management books, it has remained relatively obscure to most practicing executives.

The Practical Practice of Lean

Shigeo Shingo, 1909-1990
Shigeo Shingo, 1909-1990

The Toyota Production System did not emerge from any academic theory or research. On the contrary, it was born and bred on the shop floor by practicing managers, engineers and front line employees. The language of lean, phrases like “the elimination of waste” and “respect for people” reflect its shop floor origins.

Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo are the two individuals at Toyota who are most credited with developing and promoting this new system of work. It emerged as Shigeo Shingo worked with die press operators to reduce change over time from one stamped part to another. At Ford in the 1960’s it required one day to change dies. There was a die change department, die change workers and die change managers. If it takes a full day to change over from one part to another you are naturally going to want to run each part for a long time, many hundreds or thousands of units before changing over. You must then have a warehouse to put them in, a forklift to move them, warehouse workers and warehouse managers. Shingo observed the work and timed the actual value adding time and the total time. He only considered the actual time that the die was stamping the metal to be value-adding. Everything else was waste. Asking the press operators to think, to experiment and find ways to reduce the non-value adding time, the process increasingly became “lean.” The last time I was in Marysville, there was poster next to the world’s larges stamping press. The poster was written by hand and said “.54!” That is fifty-four seconds to change dies on the world’s largest stamping press.

When you reduce change over time you reduce the need for work-in-process inventory and you make small lots rather than large lots. You eliminate waste. This is where it began.

It is an important point of history that both in the coal mine and at the stamping press, it was the workers who used their own practical knowledge of how things work and the relationships among people, to create what became historically important innovations in work systems.

In the mid 1980’s I became involved at Honda America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio as they built their U.S. manufacturing capacity. They were very forthright that their system was an adaptation of the Toyota Production System. At the same time I was working at Ford and several other large American manufacturing companies. The contrast was glaringly obvious, particularly in the culture. At Honda every employee, and “every” means every manager including the president, wore the exact same uniform. Every new manager or engineer worked on the production line for six weeks to gain respect for those who did the value adding work of the organization. There were no private office and the president sat in the middle of a large open office area. Every employee was on a team and every team met every day to seek improvement. The factory was as clean as any kitchen or operating room. Discipline for negative behavior was the result of a judgement by a “jury of your peers” rather than a judgement by management.  There was a spirit of unity rather than a spirit of division. All of these were in stark contrast to the then current state of U.S. manufacturers.

But, the differences were equally clear in the technical system. In U.S. manufacturing companies at every work station there was a bin, or simply a pile of incoming work to be done. There were always two other piles: work completed and ready to be moved to the next station, and a bin for bad parts. The parts didn’t move until the piles grew high. At Honda, as at Toyota, there were very small piles and no bin for bad parts. I learned at Honda that anything that is not moving is waste. Therefore, the larger the piles the more the waste. Honda was constantly trying to make things move and not allow parts to stand still.

Lean is a moving target because, at its heart, lean is a process of learning and improvement. It cannot be defined as something that is standing still or fixed. It is not simply mimicking what happened at Toyota or anywhere else. And, most importantly, it is not a kaizen event, a project, or something done by a consultant.

It is best captured as a philosophy rather than a particular method or technique. If you don’t have the philosophy, you don’t get it.

Here are some ways of describing lean philosophy and practice:

  • Lean is a culture of continuous improvement practiced at every level of the organization and by every team.

  • Lean is the application of the scientific method of experimentation and study of work processes and systems to find improvements.

  • Lean is respect for people. It is respect for the voice of the customer and it is respect for those who do the work, who are “on-the-spot” and are, therefore, the “world’s greatest experts” in their work.

  • Lean is the elimination of waste in all its forms. Lean is the ability to distinguish between work that actually adds value to your customers and work that does not. By eliminating waste, you free resources to devote to value-adding activity that serves your customers.

  • Lean is a work environment that assures the quality and safety of all work for both customers and staff.

  • Lean is a focus on improving the work process and not on blaming people or creating fear.

  • Lean is a culture of teamwork, shared responsibility and ownership that cuts through organization walls or silos.

  • Lean is a culture that returns the joy to work. Honda speaks of the three joys of buying, selling and making the product. We do our best work when we have joy in our work.

  • Lean is flow. Lean is an interruption free process that flows from beginning to end without interruption.

As companies have implemented lean management in the U.S. and Europe there are two major causes of failure that have proven to be all too common. First, it is often viewed as a way of reducing costs and the focus has therefore largely been on the work process and the social system or culture has lagged behind. Changing the culture requires complete management understanding and buy-in. Reducing waste on the factory floor requires little commitment to personal change on the part of leaders. The second cause of failure has been the lack of engagement by employees in the implementation process. Too often it is done TO them, rather than BY them. STS provides lessons that can help to solve both of these problems.

STS is Not Only What, But How


STS theory views the organization as a whole-system, both technical and social. However, in my own practice I have found it most useful to expand the meaning of the whole-system to include the economic system. In reality, every organization depends on the flow of money, even charitable organizations. The design of the system, to optimize the whole, must include an understanding of the flow of money, the revenue and costs associated with production. You could design and improved work process and an improved social system, yet do so in a way that resulted in greater costs. This would result in failure.

Socio-technical system design is a change methodology as well as a way of looking at the nature of the system. STS design is based on a process of co-creation, in which the stakeholders in the process together analyze the current state and design a future ideal state.(Cherns, 1976) (Trist, 1980) The theory is that by having managers and employees who work in the system, as well as customers, suppliers and anyone else who knows, cares or must act on the system engaged together, not only will the future design be more effective for all, it will also have their ownership and commitment which will lead to successful implementation. This is the principle of co-creation and it is a key element in successful change. It is frequently absent in lean implementation and it is at the core of STS design.

This is a significant difference between lean and STS. STS design can be facilitated by a consultant, but it cannot be done by a consultant. The magic of the process is largely in the learning, the understanding gained by management and a design team comprised of individuals from different levels and different functions, as they analyze the external environment, the work system, the culture and then design the whole system to be capable of meeting the demands of the future environment. STS creates a learning organization, a group of people who learn to think well, to analyze the work and organization in a systematic manner. This capability is an asset to the organization and can become the framework for migrating change to subsequent units of the organization.

Lean and STS have more in common than not. They both focus on the work process as well as the culture or social system. They both promote the value of those who do the work, those at the Gemba. They both value continuous improvement by those who do the work.

What can they learn from each other? STS practitioners can learn the many practical lessons that have been learned on the shop floor of Toyota and produced one of the world’s most successful companies. Lean practitioners can learn to study and align the whole system while engaging all stakeholders in the design process. Together, they area powerful combination.

(Cherns, A. (1976). The principles of sociotechnical design. Human Relations, 29(8), 783-792.)
(Trist, E. (1980). The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems. Perspectives on Organizational Design and Behavior.)

lean managementsocio-technical systemsToyota Production System

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