How to balance systematic management and systems thinking

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Tuesday, 9 June, 2020 - 10:30
Industry news
National News

The combination of systematic management and systems thinking is not a “one-size-fits-all approach” and must match the size, resources and cultural elements of any organisation, according to Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Different (sub)systems might have different levels of maturity which could impact the application of systematic management and systems thinking, and QUT Health, Safety and Environment Associate Professor Nektarios Karanikas said they might operate under a range of parameters including safety-critical areas as well as the available time to decide and act.

“Therefore, it is not about what other companies do and what it looks like a best practice,” he said.

“It is about how much room exists to move to a combination other than your organisational currently implements, if necessary and desired.”

Karanikas, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference – ONLINE, which will be held from 22–24 June 2020, explained that a systems approach to OHS (as depicted in the recent AS/NZS 45001) requires the concurrent implementation of systematic management and systems thinking.

Systematic management represents the “who, what, where, what and how” parts of the system to ensure reliable and consistent operations, he said.

“On the other hand, systems thinking represents the ‘why’ component and targets to a deeper understanding of the system to minimise assumptions,” said Karanikas.

“It is about the validity of what we know and how the system is managed.”

When trying to combine these two approaches, Karanikas observed that the main difficulty is to define and maintain the balance between acceptable and controlled variability in the system, especially regarding human performance.

This becomes even more challenging under the reality of precarious employment and the changing nature of workforce characteristics.

“Besides, legislative obligations, which require some form of evidence of effective OHS management, might push organisations to apply rigorous systematic management so that they can prove that they did their best to keep everything under control,” said Karanikas.

“Thus, systems thinking might become a second priority, and, even further, any decentralisation which this approach suggests may lead to a perceived loss of power within managers.”

There are a number of steps OHS professionals can take to help in the process, according to Karanikas, who said the first one is to check how objectives and procedures are generated: “the more top-down the direction, the more intensive your systematic management and the less variability is accepted in your organisation,” he said.

“Second, decide collectively the degree to which you want to welcome and control variability and align this with the generation of objectives and procedures.”

The third step is to use the observations from applying systems thinking and systematic management to retrofit each other and improve.

“Fourth, as your organisation and its subsystems evolve, continually reflect on, and possibly transform, the way you generate objectives and procedures,” said Karanikas.

“Most importantly, inspire and foster open communication, good leadership, management commitment and employee consultation and use these as your change and implementation agents.”


Karanikas will be speaking at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference – ONLINE, which will be held from 22–24 June 2020. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit