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Systems thinking: why applying it from the start can transform your project.

Major projects are inevitably very complex. Yet too often we fail to fully comprehend and grapple with that complexity and, as a result, create designs that risk being rejected by the very people for whom they’re intended. Applying ‘systems thinking’ from the beginning can help harness the insights of stakeholders, integrate systems with the wider networks on which they depend and ultimately create a holistic transport system, valued by its passengers.

Managing complexity is one of the perennial challenges of engineering. Across every kind of major infrastructure project, there is always a complex matrix of challenges, each of them distinct but also interrelated. So when it comes to proposing the expansion of a station or the extension of a line, the project is confronted with a number of potential impacts from the environment to the local neighbourhood, each of which relate to the project in a different way. As the number of considerations proliferates, the number of stakeholders and users rise in tandem, each of whom requires a different approach. 

Systems thinking makes us explore and understand these challenges. It encourages us to look at the relationships between components within a system, which helps illuminate exactly how it will work. Moreover, it challenges the project to integrate the system within the wider system in which it will eventually exist. No system is ever fully self-contained – understanding how a transport system will fit into the larger social system – or into its supporting ecosystem – can make a dramatic difference in how successful it is. Systems thinking also forces us to consider exactly how we’ll measure its success and how those benefits will actually be realised.

However, all these benefits can only be delivered when systems thinking is applied at a project’s earliest stages; the difficulty of making substantial changes to the design later down the line can be prohibitively high, leaving the owning organisation with costly rework and dissatisfied stakeholders. Unless there is engagement with the complexity of the entire system from the outset, there is a risk of missing out on the benefits, falling foul of unforeseen challenges and perhaps even the termination of the project.

Slow down, think again

Big projects symbolise progress, development and improvement, and those closest to such projects are understandably eager to get started. Momentum is powerful and those close to the project can get swept up in its grand designs and ideas. It’s important to pause and consider the proposals from the perspective of different stakeholders. At this stage, a lack of diverse thinking or an unwillingness to confront the real complexities beneath the project’s surface can store up significant problems.

It’s not about being cautious or stalling progress; it’s about making sure progress is achieving the right level of maturity within the designs. In the design phase, most operators seek to select the most optimal solution which satisfies most of the stakeholder needs – whether that’s a particular authority or the general public. But without a thorough exploration of the system and its various points of interface, finding the optimal solution is unlikely – opting to do whatever’s worked before or what appears to be most cost-effective. Ultimately, if the design depends on being granted consent, there is risk that this will be denied. Systems thinking helps to minimise this risk.

Seek out stakeholders

The bigger the project, the more stakeholders. However, regardless of size, it’s important to take everyone’s views on board and understand the different impacts of the project on different groups. We can be convinced of possessing the best solution, but the stakeholders will understand their needs much better than we do.

While working on Crossrail 2, there was a lot of potential disruption – its live route would necessitate taking commercial properties and people’s homes, and potentially building in parks. So we always needed to ensure that all the options were examined and the one most acceptable to all stakeholders was chosen.

But without engaging, the optimal solution is often obscure. For example, building a new depot at South Wimbledon challenged us to create access in a congested area; the only solution seemed to be to take land from a cemetery. In principle, this is usually more straightforward than other types of land and, since there were no other options, our design proposed going through the graveyard. It was through consultation with local residents that the real impact of such a design was realised: the recently deceased were still being visited by living relatives, meaning that our proposed changes would cause unacceptable stress to the community with relatives buried in the cemetery. Obviously, this was unacceptable – so we came up with a novel solution, using a tunnel to avoid impacting the cemetery.

This example illustrates why systems thinking and stakeholder engagement are so important. Had we depended on the consent for the cemetery design, we might have completed a lot of work around its design before finding out that it wasn’t acceptable. We would then have had to make a new design, potentially impacting the station and depot layout, its capacity etc. Such significant and costly adaptations to the programme can be difficult to recover from and sometimes it creates an interminable delay that ultimately kills the entire programme. It is important to spend time exploring solutions, consulting with stakeholders and finding acceptable compromises. This example shows how easy it is to misunderstand the problem and how, if we don’t think deeply enough or fail to consult, we could easily make a costly mistake.

Going holistic

So we’ve seen how, without systems thinking, we run the risk of delivering something that the user doesn’t want or accept without significant changes. But we also run the risk of delivering a system that’s not integrated. This makes them less likely to achieve strong uptake among passengers and other users. By conceiving the entirety of the network and placing it within the context of wider social and environmental matrices, systems thinking forces us to think holistically. Rather than the wider context being something to be considered at the end (if at all), it brings home the reality that there is no transport system without wider society or indeed without the environment. That means we can begin to explore and understand the relationships governing the interfaces between the system and those with which it connects. Not only does this yield new insights, but it also helps to ensure that when the system is operational, it will be embraced and not replaced.

Thinking holistically can transform your understanding of the project. Meaningfully connecting the technological system to the psychological and emotional needs of the passengers who will use it will help to reveal new solutions, improving a project in unforeseeable ways. Realising that it’s a service, not just a system, can help with rethinking the design so that it’s more aligned with the requirements of those who will use it.

Yet this doesn’t mean simply putting the passenger first; it demands connecting the needs of the passenger to the systems itself. When TfL introduced its S-stock – replacing 50-year-old trains – they were confident that their new design would revolutionise the passenger experience. The S-stock had aircon, more space, more comfort – and even eliminated the gap between the train and the platform, delivering level access.

But that created a horizontal gap at some locations – rather than a vertical one – which was just as hazardous for passengers. To mitigate this, additional platform staff were used to protect people from the gap which increased operational cost. TfL had put passengers first, but without integrating the new train designs with the wider system of train, stations and platforms; the end result wasn’t optimal at all locations.

Despite this, the overall passenger experience was improved and solutions to close the horizontal gap will be implemented. Systems thinking makes problems like this less likely because it integrates the various systems together in a way that exposes their incompatibilities before they become expensive problems.

Systems thinking, better systems

With complex systems, it’s always difficult to define the scope of the system to a sufficient level of detail. And without the scope, it can’t be costed against it accurately; it’s also difficult to deliver it on time. But systems thinking offers so much more than that. By revealing the intricacies of the social and natural environment upon which a system depends, it encourages meaningful engagement; that reveals new opportunities to deliver more than what was expected, strengthening the business case and adding more value.

To apply systems thinking effectively, it’s worth bearing two things in mind. First, that a diversity of viewpoints is crucial, right from the beginning of a design. Talking to a wide range of different stakeholders and users, and engaging with them on their terms, opens the door to previously-unimagined solutions. Failing to listen to a diversity of opinions increases the risk of unacceptable designs which can lead to costly rework, reputational damage or even the whole scheme grinding to a halt.

Second, complexity should be embraced. Human beings dislike it and, generally, we’re bad at managing it. We prefer straightforward generalisations and simple truths, with easy-to-categorise properties. Yet our world isn’t straightforward and neither are the people we share it with. Only by accepting the deep interrelationship of our networks and systems can we begin to truly understand them, and design them in harmony with human nature, society and the environment.

Author: Paul Thomas is Technical Director, Rail Systems at Atkins.

Rail Engineer is the leading independent quality monthly magazine for engineers, project managers, directors and leading rail executive decision makers. Head to www.railsubs.com to make a free subscription to RailEngineer magazine or one of its sister publications.


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