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Illustrative applications of the Formal Systems Model

Many practical studied have used the Formal Systems Diagrams. The recurring themes are reviewed and examples are given.

Many studies have been carried out that have used the Formal Systems Model. Recurring themes emerge from these studies such as:

  • Deficiencies in the structure of the system, such as a lack of a performance-measuring subsystem or a control/decision-making subsystem.
  • No clear statements of purpose supplied in a comprehensible form to the system from the wider system.
  • Deficiencies in the performance of one or more subsystems – for example the performance-measuring subsystem may not have performed its task adequately.
  • Lack of an effective means of communication between the various subsystems.
  • Inadequate design of one or more subsystems.
  • Not enough consideration given to the influence of the environment, and insufficient resources to cope with those environmental disturbances that were foreseen.
  • Imbalances in resource allocation that lead to quality problems or to cost or output quantity problems or delays.

For example, research looking at the difficulties experienced by a Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership (Ellis, Fortune and Peters, 2007) found the following:

No performance management sub-system could be identified in the Partnership System. Any performance management that was carried out was undertaken by the constituent members of the partnership in an ad hoc way. Several members felt that when performance data were presented to the partnership as a whole, insufficient time was allowed to discuss the data and often no serious attempt was made to make sense of them in relation to external expectations or targets that had been set. However, this perception was not universally held; some of the longer standing members of the partnership who belonged to those agencies with perceived high influence (mainly the police and local council) were relatively satisfied with current processes.
Accountability links were partial and unclear. Some of the sub-groups responsible for delivery of the action plan (mostly those that had joined the partnership after the initial structure had been agreed) were linked directly to the Partnership Board (wider system) and so information about activities and their levels of performance was not brought to the Implementation Group (decision-making sub-system).
There were mismatches between the FSM and the situation where resource provision was concerned. While responsibility for delivery was delegated to the Implementation Group, the level of delegated authority over resources and decision-making powers was unclear. This in turn made it difficult for the Implementation Group to clarify its own expectations of the sub-groups responsible for delivery, especially in the case of those that reported directly to the Partnership Board.

In a completely different area, a study of the construction of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge (White and Fortune, 2012) found that the problems that were outlined above were caused by unforeseen environmental influences and the failure to appreciate the viewpoints of those directly and indirectly affected by the project.


(Downloads available below)

Ellis, E. Fortune, J. and Peters, G. (2007) ‘Partnership problems: analysis and re-design’, Crime Prevention and Community Safety, 9, 34-51.

White, D. and Fortune, J. (2012) ‘Using systems thinking to evaluate a major project – the case of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge’, Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, 19.2, 205-228.

It can be noted that the following diagram on double-loop learning is relevant to the discussion. The first loop involves learning while second involves questioning the underlying assumptions.

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Systems Thinking and Complexity

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