Systems Thinking apprenticeships – developing new approaches to problems in the NHS

Richard Goodwin, MD of The JGA Group reflects on the first two years of the Systems Thinking Practitioner Apprenticeship, chosen by the NHS Project Profession as its level 7 apprenticeship.

Two years on from launching the Systems Thinking Practitioner apprenticeship we are delighted to see the first apprentices going to the assessment phase.

More than 30 apprentices from 12 different organisations – that’s 15% of the 180 apprentices nationally, have chosen to study on our purpose designed course.

In a recent webinar, the HCPA EDI network discussed current apprentices’ experiences of the Systems Thinking Practitioner apprenticeship and identified key considerations for anyone thinking about starting the course.

“One of the most fulfilling personal development decisions I have ever made”

Kalpesh Thankey is a Primary Care Programme Support Manager for NHS England. He started his Systems Thinking Practitioner apprenticeship with JGA in autumn 2021.

“Systems Thinking is about people and relationships,” says Kalpesh. “Most problems haven’t just occurred; they are not new and have often perpetuated over many years. Taking a fragmented, linear approach to dealing with them has been ineffective and has even caused new problems.”

Kalpesh’s purpose is to use systems thinking to support decision makers in strategic and leadership roles to understand and address complex problems. “Recently I was able to apply my systems thinking learning to the transition and merger between four organisations, using my learning to critique proposed designs.”

Kalpesh admits he had previously dismissed apprenticeships, being influenced by the perception of apprenticeships as lesser alternatives. Now he says “Starting the apprenticeship has been one of the most fulfilling personal development decisions I have ever made. The support I have received from across the organisation has been brilliant and I look forward to sharing things I have learned with my team. It has opened doors I wouldn’t previously have the confidence to knock on, let alone open. It’s been a game changer for me and I cannot recommend this apprenticeship or any apprenticeship highly enough.”

Applicable to many different roles

Systems Thinking is slightly different to other apprenticeships which usually relate to a specific role. People don’t tend to have Systems Thinking in their job title and very few people spend all their time being systems thinkers instead systems thinking is a set of tools and techniques you can apply in a wide range of jobs in which you need to solve challenging (‘wicked’ to use the proper term) problems. As a manager or project manager, you can deploy systems thinking techniques to support decision-making and make initiatives and projects successful.

The career route in Systems Thinking benefits from being more open than many apprenticeships. The apprenticeship is there to step into at any level, whether following A levels or a PhD in another subject. At JGA we ask the question “can the person handle it and will it be beneficial to their role”. Apprenticeships at Level 7 are much more hands on than a masters’ degree so it is vital that you have the opportunity to apply your learning to real projects.

JGA’s first Systems Thinking Practitioners

Elisse Grint has worked in the NHS since 2013. Currently, she works as staff engagement co-ordinator for NHS England in the East of England. She has just completed the training phase of the apprenticeship and is working on the end point assessment. This involves a professional discussion with an assessor; an 8,000-word report about applying systems thinking in her role and a presentation and question and answer session.

“In the NHS you see problems all the time,” says Elisse. “We tend to jump into solutions and invariably they don’t work. Systems Thinking is about taking a step back, working collaboratively with systems and across departments.”

“It has been so rewarding to learn new skills and how they can be applied to the NHS. I have been working on a project using Systems Thinking to look at the working experience of disabled staff within the NHS, looking behind the data to understand why they have a worse working experience.”

“We tend to forget that apprenticeships are an option at Level 7. This has helped me to move forward in my career. It has been wonderful to get different views from the rest of the cohort and interact across regions. You start to build your network up and get to learn from people that you would never have met if you weren’t studying.”

Funded training that delivers results

As our first Systems Thinking Practitioner apprentices complete their programme, JGA used their experience to refresh content and streamline the course. This is part of the continuous improvement process to ensure that both apprentices and employers get the maximum impact.

One of the key benefits of apprenticeships is that the apprenticeship is, in effect, free to the NHS. The Systems Thinking Practitioner apprenticeship is a great way to get value, enabling new approaches to established problems, joined up thinking and positive change.

Top tips for higher apprenticeships

  • Be prepared for the learning – you will learn a lot of new information, tools and techniques.
  • Be firm with your employer – by agreeing to your apprenticeship they have committed to 20% of your time being available for off-the-job training. Apprenticeships are a four-way partnership between the employer, line manager, apprentice and training provider to get the maximum benefits.
  • Engage your line manager – have a conversation with them first before you start the apprenticeship. It will help if they can open doors for you to real-life projects where you can use your new knowledge and skills.
  • Don’t forget to enjoy it!

Systems Thinking Practitioner is one of the higher level apprenticeships that JGA provides that can help to transform organisations. Another that we have just launched is Service Designer. For more information about JGA apprenticeships contact our helpful sales team at