This article discusses five ways to effectively facilitate block diagrams by conducting pre-session exchanges, asking powerful questions, using exercises that engage, anticipating disruption, and controlling the tempo. The foundations of systems thinking and facilitation apply to block diagrams because the analysis requires a group to establish the nature of separate and inter-related components.
Block diagrams make it easier to represent, understand, and communicate flows of details among components and their interfaces. Block diagrams are used when designing new processes and evaluating those that already exist. Facilitating block diagrams directly impacts the quality of system design, assessments (such as Reliability Assessments or Risk Assessments), and improvements.
Facilitation is defined as a structured session(s) in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all participants.” As provided in the definition, the fundamentals of good facilitation are always essential, including having a structure for developing block diagrams that include predefined steps and a process for arriving at results that are created, understood, and accepted by all participants.
Facilitating Block Diagrams
A block diagram is a diagram that shows the operation, interrelationships, and interdependencies of components in a system. There are two types of block diagrams: a functional block diagram, which shows a system’s subsystems and lower-level products and their interrelationships and which interfaces with other systems; and a block diagram, which is similar to the functional block diagram but is modified to emphasize those aspects influencing reliability, or the probability of a something performing its intended function under stated conditions without failure for a given period of time. (American Society for Quality, 2022).
Blocks, or boxes, represent the components. Connecting lines between the blocks represent interfaces.
Some general tips for developing block diagrams include:
- Study and understand the system before you facilitate the session. Focus on the primary components, the inputs that enter the system (I.e., raw materials), the system outputs, and the feedback loops that are used to monitor, control, and adjust the system as it converts inputs to outputs.
- Name the blocks in the same manner as system users. Review existing process diagrams, software applications, or relational databases (such as the maintenance management system) to understand site-specific terminology and naming conventions.
- Show the input, output, and system boundary. Ensure you exactly mark the input, which indicates the start, and the output, which indicates the end of a process in a block diagram. Draw a dashed line representing the boundary of the system of interest to clearly show participants what is in the problem frame and what is not.
- Verify accuracy. Following the facilitated session, provide a cleaned-up version to all participants for their input before moving to other design, assessment, or improvement steps.
These are five ways to be more effectively facilitating block diagrams.
Like the pre-session exchange for tree diagrams, the pre-session exchange for block diagrams should be used to develop an accurate block diagram before the facilitated session. The primary reason is that block diagrams require the grouping of many components and their interfaces. Developing the block diagram from scratch during the session takes too much time, leads to participant frustration, and hurts the facilitator’s credibility. Plus, some form of process diagram or process & instrumentation (P&ID) should be available as a starting point for existing systems. A second reason is that using commercially available software prior to the session provides a check that the logic that has been used is correct.
Data is essential for developing a block diagram in the pre-session exchange. Data and the information related to how it logically tie together are also essential components of developing a pre-session block diagram. In most cases, the facilitator will need to utilize in-person discussions, virtual discussions, and online research in the pre-session exchange.
One common oversight when developing block diagrams is not doing a detailed pre-session exchange with the executive sponsor. Because block diagrams are a common tool for many methods and approaches, it is easy to assume that the diagrams are merely an incremental step in a bigger effort. However, the system boundaries, inputs, and outputs are a big part of defining what the executive sponsor sees as the overall problem.
Great facilitators use imagination phrases like “Think about…”, “Imagine…”, and “Consider….” There should be a balance between expanding the thinking and avoiding unrealistic speculation. Block diagrams focus on “success” aspects of input(s) being converted to outputs, while in contrast, fault tree diagrams focus on “failure” aspects of a process.
For block diagrams, focus on powerful questions on what it takes for a given input to pass through each step successfully. In other words, at a gold mine focus on a handful of dirt and each component as it moves through (or across) as the gold is extracted. For a drinking water system, focus on powerful questions related to each component that an untreated drop of water passes through before it is converted into a drop of clean drinking water.
Exercises That Engage
The most engaging exercise when developing a block diagram is to develop the block diagram by hand during the actual session. Block diagrams, especially those generated from software, are visually overwhelming to most people. Developing the block diagram together helps the action stay directed and keeps the participants fully engaged.
Similar to all forms of problem solving, framing is especially important when facilitating the development of a block diagram. Setting boundary conditions is an engaging opening exercise that gets participants engaged. Many different approaches and tools can be used.
A combination of a whiteboard and sticky notes are the best sources of engaging exercises for developing block diagrams. Custom sticky notes in the forms of boxes, circles, diamonds, and other shapes can also be obtained affordably. Systems, by definition, are a collection of inter-related parts so grouping and subgrouping the many parts generate participant interaction.
The biggest disruptor associated with developing block diagrams is related to the interfaces and feedback loops. Getting the logic correct is essential. Parallels pathways, redundancy, and monitoring (versus control) points provide the biggest debates. Another less common but usual hot button is the usefulness of software and human interfaces.
The default advice is to capture everything and then sort through it later. However, block diagrams are not as contentious as tree diagrams (especially fault trees) in their development. Different perspectives can usually be held to healthy debate rather than all-out disruptions if the facilitator has done their homework.
Controlling the Tempo
Block diagrams, like tree diagrams, are a journey in logic and require fresh, level-headed minds. Pre-session exchange and the preliminary block diagram development are essential for efficient and effective sessions. Block diagrams vary in detail, ranging from a high level at a conceptual design stage to very detailed at the process improvement stage. Having an experienced facilitator who understands the differences, and can adjust the session time durations and overall tempo, is especially important.
Having a structured approach is important to any type of facilitation. Block diagrams are no exception. Participants need to know what they are doing, the sequence they are doing it, how they will know when it is time to stop, and what information will be developed or modified between sessions. Great block diagram facilitators continually fall back on the “success” of the primary input’s conversion to an output.
Performing a sensitivity analysis is effective in controlling the tempo, especially when it comes to parallels pathways, redundancy, and monitoring (versus control) points. Underlying the process flows is Boolean logic of “and” our “or” gates so understanding different scenarios clarifies the relative impact of one form of logic or argument on another.
Thinking About It
A system block diagram minimally consists of functional components in the system (collection of inter-related parts), with interfaces and communication pathways, and delineations of inputs, outputs, and boundaries. The key to facilitating an effective system block diagram is clearly moving session participants through the decoupled processes that produce success for the system. Systems thinking and facilitation foundations apply to block diagrams, rich with many parts and the logic that connects them. The five ways to more effectively facilitate block diagrams enhance a facilitator’s ability to guide the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all. Seek to make your facilitation better than most, or better yet, above all others.
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