Each time I hear or read a reference to a “systems approach,” I feel a bit helpless to let the one using the term to realize that in all probability his or her results will be disappointing. The same is true for “systematic approach” and “systemic approach.” When I was a child, my mother reminded me that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and I am sure that the words are used with the best of intentions. But intentions are not enough.

In our field, we often use words in a slippery manner. Among words that get mixed up together are system approach, systems approach, systematic approach, and systemic approach. We use them as if they were the same.

Not to be pedantic or stuffy, but these words and concepts are not the same. These differences are really important. These words show a difference in the unit of analysis we focus on. I hope that this is not already dismissed as “semantic quibbling,” but let’s take a closer look.

The organizational elements–what an organization uses, does, produces, and delivers and the external contributions–help to avoid splintering and fragmentation. For any improvement initiative, look at both the whole as well as the parts. Ensure that each of the organizational elements–shown below as Mega, Macro, Micro, Processes, and Inputs–are identified as measurable, precisely, rigorously, and correctly, and to ensure that they are all aligned one with the others so that what any organization uses, does, produces, and delivers outside of itself adds value to our shared world:


Mega (Societal Contributions)

Macro (Organizational Contributions)

Micro (Individual Contributions)




Ensure the alignment will deliver results that add up and that will add value to all internal and external stakeholders. Simply focusing on one or two of the elements will likely result in failure. After all, we all live in a world where we and our organizations are nothing more (or nothing else) than means to societal ends.

Let’s look at some definitions:

System Approach: A system approach is an inclusive focus that begins with the sum total of parts working independently and together to achieve a useful set of results at the societal level, adding value for all internal and external partners. We best think of it as the large whole, and we can show it thus:

A system is composed of smaller (sub) systems (see “Systems Approach” below) that form a larger system. Each of these parts works independently and together to achieve a common purpose.

Usually, people who ignore the external client and societal focus of an organization start their planning and doing with one or more of the subsystems, but call each a “system.” Thus the confusion between a system approach that is holistic and starts with a focus on Mega–societal value added–and a systems approach that looks only at one or more of the parts of the overall system. This is important (and not semantic quibbling) because only dealing with one or more of the subsystems and not the whole system will deliver failure down the road. It would be like getting into physical shape by exercising just your abs, but not realizing that there are many more body subsystems that make up your overall survival, health, vigor, and well-being.

Systems Approach: This is a narrow focus that begins with the parts of a system–actually  subsystems– that makes up the “system.” We can show it thus:

It should be noted here that the “system” as portrayed here is made up of smaller elements, or subsystems, shown as “bubbles” imbedded in the larger system. If we start at this smaller level, we will start with a part and not the whole. So, when someone says he or she is using a “systems approach” that person is really focusing on one or more subsystems; he or she is unfortunately focusing on the parts–splinters–and not the whole. When planning and doing at this level, the person can only assume that the payoffs and consequences will add up to something useful to society and external clients.

It is possible that many public and private as well as political problems come from each agency, entity, department, or organization looking at itself as “the system” and limiting the focus to its own good and not also looking at the larger system in which we all live, work, and contribute.  For example, each state and federal agency generally submits budgets for itself without any formal criteria for measuring the extent to which it adds value to our shared society. Thus, each agency (e.g., FBI, Homeland Security, Defense, Health and Human Services) struggles to capture a significant part of a limited overall federal budget; they are competitive with each other instead of cooperative for the common societal good.

When organizations compete with each other, the opportunities for cooperation and synergies tend to remain unexamined. Or ignored. The way in which we conventionally plan and budget, based on splinters of the whole (my organization, my group, my service) and not the whole (Mega), might be contributing to poor results.

Systematic Approach: This approach does things in an orderly, predictable, and controlled manner. It is a reproducible process. Doing things, however, in a systematic manner does not ensure the achievement of useful results. Some major atrocities civilization has experienced have been quite systematic.

Systemic Approach: This approach affects everything in the system. The definition of “the system” is usually left up to the practitioner and thus may or may not include external clients and society; it might not (and usually does not in practice) include Mega. It does not necessarily mean that when something is systemic it is also useful.

If we only focus on systems (a program, a project, a product, a service, an activity, a law, a policy), that focus will shape the improvement and accomplishment and what we use, do, produce, and develop. A systems (actually a subsystems) frame of reference will make us miss the required alignment between all of the levels of the organizational elements model–and oversimplify our view and, thus, limit our results.

It is vital that we link everything we use, do, produce, and deliver to adding measurable value to ourselves, our organizations, and our external clients and shared society: a system approach. As Dale Brethower has noted, “If you are not adding value to society, you are subtracting value from society.”

Put another way, reality is not divided into jobs, functions, departments, organizations, issues, or laws.

Look at any organization chart and you immediately realize that is not the way the organization really works. All of those cascades of names in boxes with titles in each are a convenient fiction.

Consider the way politicians talk about “issues.” Each issue is a splinter of the whole social landscape, and if we look at each one at a time–a systems approach–we miss the whole. But they pass single-issue laws and wonder why the legislation does not deliver desired results.* They look at health services delivery without linkages to transportation (to get services) or economics. We pass educational testing legislation without looking to see if passing the tests relates to success in life. These are splinters, parts, and hunks without relating the parts and the whole.

Yet the conventional wisdom and conventional approaches to performance improvement are single-issue focused. We attack specific jobs to improve each without really seeing if that job adds value to all other related jobs and to what the organization delivers externally.

System, Systems, Systematic, and SystemicThe organizational elements model describes a total system, a system made up of many parts. It has its primary focus on adding value to external clients and society, on Mega. What gets delivered outside the organization, Macro, is made up of all of the building block results accomplished at the Micro level.  And Micro level results, in turn, come from Processes–means and activities using human, capital, and physical resources, Inputs. An operational system, such as your organization, contains and uses all of the organizational elements. The organizational elements describe the relationships of any system. The application and use of the organizational elements are dynamic andinteractive. The relationship among the organizational elements is not linear. This alignment lets you know that everything that is done and accomplished at the Micro, Macro, and Mega levels is built on Processes and Inputs. In a dynamic system–and that is every organization–there is a constant back-and-forth flow among all of the elements.

For example, performance system design and development is a Process that systematically finds what is required for successful performance and provides it to people in the organization. The organization that chooses to improve its performance becomes the focus, and design, development, implementation, and continual improvement are built upon Inputs, other Processes, and what it delivers at the Micro then Macro, then it should (but usually does not) look at contributions at the Mega levels, measurable value. Based upon design and development, gaining information from each of the organizational elements allows for the organization and the people in it to change what should be changed and continue that which is working. Any changes to the system being improved are intended to be systematic; the processes and methods are known and transparent. And affecting everything used, done, and delivered will add value to the entire system; be systemic.

To better ensure that splintering does not take place, the organizational elements provide a guide for making sure everything is in place and aligned. The actual change is focused on the target system: our shared society (Mega) and our organization and its partners.

Related Readings
Addison, R., Haig, C., & Kearny, L. (2009). Performance architecture: The art and science of improving organizations. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Bernardez, M. (2009). Minding the business of business: Tools and models to Design and measure wealth creation. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 22(2), 17-72.

Bernardez, M., Kaufman, R., Krivatsy, A., & Arias, C. (2012). City doctors: A systemic approach to transform Colon City, Panama. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 24(4), 41-60.

Brethower, D. (2006). Performance analysis: Knowing what to do and how. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

Brethower, D. (2009, November/December). It isn’t magic, it’s science. Performance Improvement 48(10), 18-24.

Guerra, I. (2003). Key competencies required of performance improvement professionals. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 16(1), 55-72.

Kaufman, R., & Clark, R. (1999, October). Re-establishing performance improvement as a legitimate area of inquiry, activity, and contribution: Rules of the road. Performance Improvement, 38(9), 13-18.

Kaufman, R. (2011). A manager’s pocket guide to strategic thinking and planning. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

Kaufman, R. (2012, Summer). Defining and applying organizational vital signs for creating a better tomorrow. Leader to Leader, 65, 21-26.

Rummler, G. A. (2004). Serious performance consulting: According to Rummler. Silver Spring, MD:  International Society for Performance Improvement and the American Society for Training and Development.


* One perspective is that just looking at subsystems –jobs or tasks alone–to improve them is like efficiently and correctly re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. No matter how good that job, it still did not prevent the collision with the iceberg (single-issue attention).


About the Author
Roger Kaufman, CPT, PhD, is professor emeritus, Florida State University, and distinguished research professor, Sonora (Mexico) Institute of Technology. He is a founder and past president of ISPI and Honorary Member for Life. He has published 40 books and over 280 articles for the field. He may be contacted at rkaufman@nettally.com.