Success or Failure……..systemic perspective

‘Failure and success are subjective assessments that vary with time and the standpoint of the person making the judgement”  (Fortune, J. and Peters, G. 2005). The judgement of whether a system has failed or not is coloured by personal perception, circumstances and expectations.   Considering the external environment is also bound to be important to consider.  The level of importance depends upon the cricumstance and the perspectives being taken.  This then links back to the Ackoff (1960) and Churchman (1964)  articles regarding the discrepancy of perceptions between those that design systems and implement/manage them.

Here is the various definitons as outlined in Fortune and Peters (1995) “A simple definition of failure is something that has gone wrong, or not lived up to expectations. Moving a little way beyond this simple statement, various types or categories of failure can be identified.

Type 1 failures, the objectives of the designers, sponsors, or users are not met fully. So, for example, a toll bridge which carried barely any traffic, or an invention which never worked properly, would be type 1 failures. These are the failures which surround us each day.

Type 2 failures the original objectives are met but there are also consequences or side effects which are judged to be inappropriate or undesirable. Thus the seemingly beneficial drug thalidomide which was later found to cause birth defects and the mining operation at Aberfan which produced unsafe spoil heaps were both type 2 failures.

These two failures are not mutually exclusive.

Even though the term failure may be used to refer to something which no longer functions it is important to note that this meaning is not necessarily synonymous with ‘going wrong’.

A type 3 failure is when an item is designed to fail at a particular time or in particular circumstances. Indeed such failure can be an integral part of a safety-based design. A simple example is a fuse in the plug of a kettle which will fail to conduct electricity if the current it is expected to carry rises above a particular limit. The failure of the fuse is a built-in device to protect the rest of the kettle from experiencing that high current and therefore the failure of the fuse is also its successful operation. Something has gone wrong, but the fuse has achieved the design objectives.

A type 4  failure category can be said to have occurred when the objectives that were set were met without undesirable consequences or side effects but by the time they were achieved there was no longer any merit or satisfaction in achieving them. Examples of these failures are products designed for a market which no longer exists or to meet legal or safety standards which no longer apply.”

Fortune and Peters continue their defintion of failure by refering back to Naughton and Peters (1976) that considered  failures arising from sets of related activities, which were referrred to as Systems Failures and characterized them as relying on:

1 human perception and identification as a failure, thereby acknowledging that one person’s failure may be another person’s success; and either:

2 failure to meet system objectives attributed by those involved, such as designers and users; or

3 the production of outputs which are considered to be undesirable by those involved.

It is this definition of systems failures  where significance is entirely in the eye of the beholder   (Fortune and Peters 1995) that I believe is relevant to my PhD and to looking at NHS Direct.


About Georgia

Sense making
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