Systems and processes differ in many ways, but the nature of the system will guide many design decisions. The nature of the system influences design decisions such as the level of process control required and the level of specificity of the various process steps and activities. There are four basic types or natures of systems, including physical processes (manufacturing, transportation, etc.); knowledge or information processes (loan processing, insurance claims, etc.); creative processes (strategy development, product development, etc.); and the degree of customization required (bespoke).
Physical systems can and often do have many technical constraints that must be dealt with during the design process. Also, many physical processes require a high degree of standardization and focus on conformance to reduce variation. Knowledge systems and processes provide the necessary accurate information to the decision makers with the least amount of effort and cost. Creative systems and processes tend to be less effective when the degree of process specificity and standardization are high. Structure can enhance the level of creativity — but only up to a point, and then additional structure beyond that point will impede or reduce creativity.
The challenge in designing creative systems is to have just enough structure and no more. The last type of system is a variation on the previous three types, and it is the degree to which these systems or processes have to produce customized or “bespoke” outputs based on a variety of needs of the customer or user.
These four types of processes are not mutually exclusive. Many systems are composed of combinations of two or sometimes all four types of processes — physical, knowledge, creative, and bespoke.
The first step is to identify the physical components of the system. Some systems and processes are primarily physical, such as manufacturing, transportation, nuclear power, etc. The design of physical systems is quite different than knowledge or creative processes. Physical systems can and often do have many engineering and scientific knowledge constraints that must be dealt with during the design process.
Also, many physical processes require a high degree of standardization to reduce variation and ensure safety. While designers of automated physical systems have to deal with engineering challenges, they often have fewer human issues to overcome. However, many to most physical systems involve some integration of humans to perform certain tasks or make certain decisions. Integrating humans can provide additional options but at the same time adds constraints or limitations. If the system can be automated, then that will impact the remaining design decisions. Generally speaking, humans make poor machines. Thus, if a system can be automated, it probably should be.
Since controls often impede other desirable characteristics (e.g., creativity and innovation), the objective is to include only as much control as is necessary to meet the requirements and nature of the system. While some systems are primarily physical systems, there are often knowledge and sometimes creative dimensions or components integrated in these systems.
The second step is to identify the knowledge components of the system. Most systems involve information or knowledge of some sort. Sometimes the knowledge in the form of an algorithm and sometimes the knowledge informs human decisions and activities. The first question then is: To what extent does the system require humans to make decisions or take action based on the information? The portions of the system that do not require humans to make decisions are candidates for digital automation.
However, many knowledge systems and processes have to be designed to enable and engage human minds as a key component in the system. The goal in these situations is to provide the necessary, accurate information to the decision makers with the least amount of effort and cost. A loan process, for example, includes components of information transfer that do not require a human decision. Other components do require human intervention, such as the decisions to loan, set an interest rate, etc. Some knowledge systems and processes serve more creative purposes.
Some knowledge processes are administrative or analytical in nature, and some require creativity. The third step is to identify the creative components of the system. In this step the task is to determine the degree to which the system allows and encourages creativity and innovation. This is often at odds with the degree to which control is needed in the system. Creative systems and processes tend to be less effective when the degree of process specificity and standardization are high. The structure can enhance the level of creativity but only up to a point and then additional structure beyond that point will impede or reduce creativity. The challenge in designing creative systems is to have just enough structure and no more.
Many management systems such as leadership systems and strategic management systems require a high degree of creativity. So the trick is to figure out just how much structure is needed to enhance the creative processes and no more. This type of system is often over-engineered in management’s never-ending attempt to predict performance. However, when it is over-engineered, they get predictably poor performance. If you want creativity and innovation, you will have to learn to live with some ambiguity.
The fourth step is to determine the degree to which flexibility is needed during execution of the system to provide custom products and services to the customer or user. How flexible does this system or process need to be to effectively address variation in users, situations, purposes, etc.? A high level of customization is needed for processes that need to be adjusted to meet the needs of different users (training and education, food service, etc.). Does this system or process need to be designed so it can be used by a wide variety of cultures, teams, individuals? Physical processes tend to require less flexibility and are typically more standardized than knowledge of creative processes.
However, there are instances where the physical processes require flexibility in execution. Service industries often deal with physical components (food, hotel properties, etc.) that have to be either modified or combined in various ways to serve the various needs of a variety of customers. The trick is to determine early in the design process the need for customization in the process so that the right degree of flexibility can be designed into the system.
- Identify the physical components of the system. Key components where information is used to do a predetermined task.
- Identify the knowledge components of the system. Key components where information is used to do a predetermined task.
- Identify the creative components of the system. Key components where information is used to do a task that requires creativity and is a unique solution
- Identify the level of customization (bespoke) needed when executing the system.
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