The concept of systems thinking was popularised in the ground-breaking book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. He postulated that for an organisation to achieve a learning culture, it has to embrace four specific disciplines that will allow it to achieve the fifth discipline — which is systems thinking.

The four disciplines are achieving a sense of personal mastery, developing a shared vision, creating an environment of team learning and working within a mental model. 

Although the book is geared towards creating a learning organisation, the concept of systems thinking can also be used in many other aspects of corporate management, such as achieving a high standard of service excellence.

Many organisations try to achieve high standards of service excellence through a process of creating a mission statement and having a vision, which they hope will permeate through to everyone in the organisation. 

Despite this, circumstances arise where the service rendered by the organisation is flawed and inferior and this leads to customers’ dissatisfaction which translates into time wasted, money spent and extra effort made to recover lost business opportunities.

It is possible to create a culture of service excellence via the process of systems thinking. This concept is based on the principle that the whole must be greater than the sum of all the parts. A good analogy is the human body. A person is a system in operation. It does not take a genius to know that if one of these systems is defective, it will start affecting the other systems as well.

Similarly, when one part of the organisational system is not working in sync with the other parts, it creates a sense of dissonance within the organisation. For example, the marketing department promises potential customers that a certain product or service will be delivered by a certain time, but the sales department is unable to fulfil this request, which irks the customer who may conclude that the organisation as a system is inept. 

To achieve service excellence, the organisation should understand and apply the fundamental elements of systems thinking. This is possible by nurturing the first four disciplines mentioned above.

An organisation has to strive for the following:

1. Encourage a personal mastery of the systems and processes

Everyone in the organisation, from the highest echelon to the lowest, should be completely clear about their job scopes and the extent of their responsibilities. Only when they are aware of this will they be able to serve both internal and external customers effectively.

2. Create a shared vision of service excellence

There is a story of four persons named Everybody, Anybody, Somebody and Nobody. As the story goes, Everybody was given a job to do which he thought that Somebody would do. But Somebody felt that Anybody could do the job.  Anybody however was of the opinion that it should be Nobody’s job. Eventually, Everybody got angry with Somebody who felt that Anybody should not be blamed for Nobody’s job. 

This interesting parable gives an insight into what it takes to create a shared vision. Excellence in service is the role and responsibility of everyone in the organisation. A powerful vision that everyone can accept and adapt to will set the organisation apart from others and ensure that everything within the system works in unison.

3. Nurture team learning

A powerful shared vision promotes excellent team learning. This means that everyone in the organisation develops a culture of remaining teachable and continuously learns, unlearns and relearns.

There should also be an effective system within the organisation for the transfer of learning to take place. This allows individuals within the organisation to work towards service excellence and give feedback and suggestion for continuous improvement.

4. Create a mental model

Human beings are basically creatures of habit. If the habits are good, they propel us forward. The reverse creates unnecessary tension in our lives. Likewise, if the environment within the organisation feeds on the habitual practice of continuous improvement and the review of current practices, then the long-term sustainability of the organisation is assured.

The mental model that the organisation displays must be one that is based on universal principles of ethics and fairness. When an organisational mental model is geared in this manner, it will display a strong culture of service excellence that will permeate through every level of the organisation.

Narrowing the gap

Systems fail primarily because there are gaps between the current and desired state of affairs. The important thing to do is to take the appropriate action to try to close the gaps or at least narrow them.

Employees may be highly trained and effective, but if they do not have a shared vision or the discipline to work as a team, the organisational system will face a “gap”. It then becomes the key concern of the leader to use his systems thinking skills to create the right mental model and shared vision to achieve service excellence. This cannot occur overnight and will require patience and constant review. Systems thinking for service excellence is not an event, but a long process.