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Efficiency: Systems thinking

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‘Systems thinking’ may sound like management jargon, but the concept is helping councils improve services.

“We needed to have high-quality, low-cost services if we were going to become the new unitary council,” says Deborah Farrow, Wiltshire County Council’s service director for business transformation.

To help achieve this the council introduced systems thinking, a management theory that has proved successful in business.

Systems thinking focuses on the structures of organisations rather than how they respond to specific events. Wiltshire began a pilot project with its team handling applications for Blue Badges.

Ms Farrow says she had a “light bulb moment”, when she studied how the Blue Badge team spent their time. “I realised we were spending a lot of effort checking people’s applications but we were saying ‘yes’ to 97% of them - and anyway, we could tell quickly which ones we were going to reject.

“We weren’t using customer-focused measures, such as the time taken for someone to receive an application from their first contact. Instead we were measuring how we used resources and whether letters were sent out to customers within five days - but we didn’t ask ourselves whether five days was appropriate, and whether a letter was needed.”

After a month spent reviewing what was taking place, the council streamlined the application process while maintaining stringency in granting badges. As a result, the time taken for people to receive a badge has been cut from over 20 days to nine days.

Systems thinking has also led to improvements in the council’s highway repair service, where the time taken to repair potholes has been reduced from an average of 45 days to 12 days.

Wiltshire has also helped introduce systems thinking in the county’s district councils, for their housing benefit/council tax and building control services.

Introducing the changes to the two services, however, was not without its challenges. “People are inclined to jump at the solutions without really understanding what the problem is. The challenge is in getting buy-in from managers and staff [to make them understand] that it is worth investing the effort,” says Ms Farrow.

Another difficulty centred round introducing change. “It is always difficult for people to change what they do, and some staff don’t immediately see the need,” she adds.

However the effort has paid off. “The changes have been generally well-accepted. People realise that it tackles problems and provides a better service for customers. It has also resulted in better working relations within teams. We think we have left a legacy of continual improvement.”

Find out more

Wiltshire County Council Deborah Farrow, service director for business transformation.
Tel: 01225 713 095 or email:

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