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Systems maps

Updated Monday, 21st June 2021

Get an introduction to systems maps, why you might use them and discover how to draw them with our diagram tutorial.

What are systems maps?

How to draw systems maps

Diagram guidelines

Purpose

A systems map shows components of the system and environment from the perspective of the person drawing the map. It is possible to depict a different perspective of the same situation by placing the boundary at different points on the same systems map.

The main uses of systems maps are to help you to begin to decide how you are going to structure a situation and to communicate to others the system you have chosen to study. They are helpful in highlighting different ways of approaching a situation. Thus, systems maps are used to:

  • Clarify thoughts at an early stage of analysis.
  • Decide upon structural elements for a more detailed diagram.
  • Experiment with different boundaries and different understandings of the purpose of the system.
  • Decide upon the level of your system of interest (‘focusing’).
  • Communicate to others the basic structure and purpose of the system you are describing.

Elements

  • A title of your diagram, specifying the system of interest is essential.
  • A system boundary.
  • System components represented by blobs, and described in words or short phrases within the boundary.
  • Environmental components described in words or short phrases as blobs outside the boundary.
  • Note: linking lines, arrows, etc. are not normally permitted elements.

Conventions

  • Words are used to name each component of the system and the environment.
  • The lines around the blobs represent the boundaries of the components.
  • Blobs may overlap only if some components (which need not be depicted) are seen as common to both in the early stages of exploring your system of interest.

Guidelines

  • The title of the diagram usually refers to what the system is for – what its purpose is. The basic form is ‘A system to…’. If you are having trouble thinking about purpose, focus on what the output of the system is. Your system boundary should be clear. The system boundary can be emphasised by colour. You can only define a system by ‘drawing’ a boundary that distinguishes what you ‘observe’ as inside, and what you observe as outside. Hence, you cannot think of a system without thinking of its ‘boundary’ and its environment.
  • Inside the boundary are all those components of the system. The boundary is a notional line, a subjective idea, that doesn’t have to correspond to any real life barrier (e.g. the limits of an organisation).
  • The environment of a system is made up of those things that are not part of the system, but can affect the system or be affected by the system.
  • Irregular blobs are normally preferable to regular boxes or perfect circles.
  • Aim for consistency between components.
  • Although there are no firm rules on positioning of components it makes sense to put important components in a fairly central position and to place related components close together.
  • It also makes sense to show important sub-systems at a reasonable size and less important ones somewhat smaller, as this is the way relative size is likely to be interpreted by others.
  • Use overlaps sparingly. Overlap only when the sharing of components is important. Multiple overlaps should be avoided.
  • It is a good idea to leave some space within your map. Not only does this allow components to stand out clearly, but it leaves room for any components you may wish to add later.
  • As with many diagram types, drawing several versions of a systems map can be very useful. In the case of a systems map, this can be used to compare different ideas of what a system is or what it is for. Different purposes often imply different boundaries between the system and its environment and can have implications for how the structure can be portrayed.
 

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