Peter Senge, author The Fifth Discipline, describes system thinking throughout this book and several other books that he has written. He brings an understanding of thinking systematically (versus linearly) and explains how we can start to see the full system instead just a quick picture of one part of the system.
He says, “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’”
We all have gotten feedback on something we do or something we did that we didn’t like. It might be during a performance review at work, something a friend tells us or receiving a bad grade in school. While the information comes as something negative, we usually don’t realize that we can actually take this and use it to improve.
We don’t take constructive criticism very well. We get a jolt of emotion (fight or flight reaction) that often comes and it starts to cloud our thinking.
I learned a lot from being forced to get through a sleepless night. When my first daughter was born I was in complete shock at how little sleep I would get. I struggled each time I had to get up to help feed her, change her or just calm her down. In the morning I would have a difficult time making it to work on time and then making it through the day with such exhaustion.
But over time it got easier. By the time we had our second daughter, I would quickly wake up and tend to her. I could wake up over and over throughout the night and get little sleep. Somehow I got up for work and would make it through the day. It wasn’t always easy but I was shocked at how much easier it was once I got used to it.
Years ago I read about a doctor who was frustrated by his patient’s lack of physical activity. Regardless of the shape or ailments of the patient he stressed the importance of getting 30 minutes of exercise every other day.
But when those patients came back to see him weeks or months later, such a small number had taken his advice that he grew frustrated. He decided to change his approach. Instead of 30 minutes every other day, he simply said to do 60 seconds (1 minute) of exercise every single day.
In an article titled Some Notes on Management in a Hospital, Dr. W. Edwards Deming said, “Hard work and best efforts are not sufficient for optimization of a system. A system must be managed.”
There is a lot of value that can be taken from this quote from Deming. We can use the wisdom from it to help us improve.
Seeing the underlying systems in our lives helps us to improve. It allows us to see more and understand more when trying to get better.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming is well known for his work with Japanese manufacturing after 1950. Many people point directly to Deming to explain the incredible success that Japanese manufacturing had in the 1980s and beyond.
There is a trend in business management right now where leaders of companies sacrifice the long-term health of their business to achieve quick results. They do this by making shortsighted decisions that will bring in early wins but ultimately impact the future of the company in a negative way.
This makes sense when you study today’s business environment. Board members seem more and more impatient. They tend to look at the CEO with a “what have you done for me lately” mindset.
There is a flaw in the way we think. While there are complex systems all around us at all times, we tend to disregard most of the system to key in on the specific piece that matters most to us.
At times this is useful. We may not care about the full parking enforcement systems in a city to know that we should put money in the meter to avoid a ticket. We may not care about weather systems when we just want to know if it will rain on our cook out.
Ninety percent of an iceberg is under water. That means that the visible, above-water section of the iceberg is really only 10%. But if we never explore below the water, we would never even realize that most of the iceberg is not seen from the surface.
Systems thinking is the mental equivalent to the 90% of the iceberg that is hidden. It goes deeper than the linear thinking which only accounts for the visible 10%.
Setting goals or New Years Resolution can be a great way to take charge of the direction of your life. But too often these are misunderstood. They are set and then we expect motivation, effort and willpower to take over and drive us towards success.
But this is misleading. Have you ever set a goal but then over the next week or so completely lost the motivation to pursue that goal? Of course. We all have.
I talk to a lot of people about goals and New Years resolutions. Whether in business, sports, finance, or health I tend to hear people talk about what they hope to achieve.
This makes a lot of sense. We are taught throughout our lives that we have to know the target we want to hit. But this is very misleading.
ost people never really evaluate or focus on the systems and habits in their lives. They simply focus on the end result or changes that they deem as temporary.
But temporary doesn’t work. Changing your diet, exercise routine, spending habits, work processes, goals etc. won’t have lasting change when we only set a short time frame to make these adjustments.
Years ago I had a chance to listen to a successful business owner speak about what he did to have the success he had. He gave a very inspiring speech with valuable business insight but there were two things that he really emphasized throughout his talk.
The first was to keep things simple. He talked about the complexity that naturally comes over time and that in order to stay focused and rule out distractions we have to simplify. We have to find the unnecessary complexity and remove it. Even when complexity exists and we can’t avoid it, we have to find ways to understand the situation in a simplified way to make the best decisions and avoid getting analysis paralysis.
One of the things that I have learned when I talk to young people is that they tend to see things in black and white. They see all of the pros of a situation or all of the cons but they can’t see both to realize that both always exist together.
It may be that they always see the grass as being greener on the other side or they can’t keep a job because once they start working they quickly see the hard work instead of the benefits of having that job.
The world is complex. And with each passing day it seems to be more and more complex.
With all of this complexity it might seem that we have to always be looking for complex solutions to problems in order to match the world around us.
When it comes to reaching new levels of success in our lives, we tend to think the things that we don’t know restrict us. We think that there must be something that we are missing or some piece of information that will unlock the ability to reach the next goal.
I have always been an advocate of education. I have gone to school for advanced degrees and taken classes just to learn. I feel that knowledge is power and we should all remain on a quest for new information.
So you set a goal that meets all of the SMART criteria and you are now on your way to achieving your goal, right? Wrong. Setting a goal has gotten tons of credit for being the most important step to improvement but it isn’t.
For decades authors have explained that the reason we aren’t successful is because we didn’t set goals. Or we set goals but they weren’t specific enough, measurable enough etc. Or we set goals but didn’t do enough to envision what it would be like to reach the goal.
Recently I went with some coworkers to an escape room. The exercise was to help us bond as a team so we can be more effective working together.
We didn’t know what to really expect but we learned a lot from our experience. We learned tips and tricks to beating escape rooms, we learned how to solve problems collectively and we learned how to better communicate.
There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when two opposing forces try to stay ahead of the other. It is a sort-of systematic escalation that takes place.
Understanding systems we can start to see situations differently. This is one where looking at things systematically, we gain a new perspective on what is happening.
The biggest benefit that I have found from using the systems and habits approach to improvement is that everything starts to align. Prior to using these techniques it seemed like some areas were improving while others were deteriorating.
This is the norm for most of us. I would start exercising but then would eat more than normal and after a few days I would quit exercising but keep eating the larger quantity!
In previous articles (How to Achieve Any Goal, Content not Complacent, and Entitlement) I have talked about the different between contentment and complacency. Contentment is a confident move towards improvement without feeling as though you need more to be happy. Complacency is a hopeless mindset that leaves you feeling as though there isn’t any benefit to working towards improvement.
But understanding the difference between the two isn’t enough to truly be content. You also have to work hard and put in place the right systems and habits.
Staying hungry for more success and staying happy in life seem conflicting. On one hand we feel we need more and that drives us to keep going after our goals. On the other we feel perfectly fine with what we have so why keep working hard for more?
To me the answer can be found by exploring the difference between being content and being complacent.
One of the great systems thinkers, W. Edwards Deming once said, “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim.”
The aim is very important and without it we just stumble through without improving. We have to set a direction to move.
There is a quote by Peter Senge that says, “How do you know what people value? Well, you watch what they buy.”
The truth is that what we value we spend money on. Whether it is to upgrade our TV package or when to buy a new computer, we are looking at the value we would receive from spending the money.
Everything around us is made up of systems. There are systems that drive everything in life. From naturally occurring systems such as weather systems to the systematic way we drive our car, there are underlying systems that are the cause for life as we know it.
The systems are powerful. Many times they have existed for a long time and can seem indestructible. On a smaller scale the personal systems in our lives drive most of our habits, which determine our behavior and influence our decisions.
tudying the systems and habits approach to improvement, I have learned quite a bit about the importance of muscle memory.
I have been reading a book by a Marine who was leading his men into battle. In the book he details the task and talks at length about how he worked with his men to prepare them for life and death situations.
Willpower is finite. It is not infinite. We all rely on willpower every day. Sometimes this gets us to avoid that donut at work or stops us from lashing out at our boss. Sometimes it is to keep studying for a test or deciding to go to the gym.
Willpower doesn’t last. We use it up and our ability to use it diminishes. Throughout the day, as we use it, we deplete it. This happens all the time and we don’t notice because it gets replenished from time to time when we sleep or relax.
There is a lot written about systematic improvement. Most of the time this references some complex computer system, business process or environmental factor. But taking a systematic improvement mindset is also helpful when we are trying to reach our personal goals.
Most people take a haphazard approach to improvement in their lives. They just want to coast along and only work on improving after something motivates them.
I’ve spent my whole career working on projects at many different organizations. From Fortune 1000 companies to working with local artists, I’ve seen how projects can take many different paths.
One of the most important things that I have found is that progress is crucial. But instead of focusing on making progress, most people get stuck trying for perfection.
The world is becoming increasingly complex. Every year tax code expands, the rules around business change, and governments come up with new regulations. With all of the complexity it is easy to see why we often turn to linear thinking when faced with problems.
Linear thinking cuts through most of the information and focuses on 2 factors. It looks at cause and effect, or right and wrong, and tries to fit the situation into those factors and ignores everything else.
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