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Use systems thinking to get past the limitations of thinking linearly

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Use systems thinking to get past the limitations of thinking linearly

Scott Miker

I found a great website that discusses Peter Senge’s work and explains it very well.  Senge is one of the most popular systems thinking writers around and his ideas are very profound.

The website simplifies the concept of systems thinking by stating, “The world IS NOT created of separate unrelated forces.  However, individuals have difficulty seeing the whole pattern.  Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change effectively and with the least amount of effort – to find the leverage points in a system.” 

This is a great summation of the systems thinking concept.  The website goes on to say that we can improve significantly by using the systems thinking framework.  But it emphasizes that in order to have the benefits of systems thinking “we let go of our linear, unidirectional causation way of thinking, and adopt the systemic perspective – where relationships are not always linear, and where causality may be traced through feedback loops back to its original source and effect it, as well as be effected by it.”

But to me the concepts are less important that the actual practicality of this insight.  Many times we make decisions that hurt us in the long run.  We look to external circumstances to blame for our bad choices.  We jump to conclusions and end up spinning our wheels on an aspect of the system that can’t really change the system in the way we need it to.

This is why leverage points in a system are so crucial.  These represent points that can be tweaked for maximum gain.  They change the fundamentals of the systems and use systems thinking in order to push past the limits of thinking linearly. 

Here is an example of using this systems thinking in a real world work situation.

We recently adjusted the delivery routes for a business and we found that we were frequently changing stops that typically were regular, recurring stops on routes to suite our customers’ needs. 

This caused us to have to make daily changes to an Excel file that we were using to create a printable drivers log for our drivers to use.  If we need to add additional stops we could add them right on the Excel file.

But we noticed a problem that we didn’t anticipate.  If we added a stop in the middle of the route we didn’t have an issue.  But if we added a stop to the end of the route, our print area on the file would not change and the end result would be that we print a driver’s log without the final, added stop.

At first our response was simply that the person printing the drivers log had to make sure he or she verified that all the stops printed out and adjusted the print area when necessary.  But then it happened again.

At this point I started to think this could be solved in a better way.  So we decided to use a very specific pattern(bold line, open line with specific text, another bold line) at the very end of our spreadsheet that signified the end of the route after the last stop.  If we had to add a stop at the end we now had to insert a line into the Excel file, which meant that Excel automatically recalculated the print area to be following the specific pattern we used.  This found a leverage point and solved a recurring problem with a simple solution.  Thinking linearly we would have continued to say the person printing the file had to be more focused and detailed to catch these when they occur. 

Linear thinking is too focused on cause and effect relationships to see these other solutions to problems.  If sales are down the linear thinking manager might just take away bonuses for their sales people or tell them they must improve to keep their job. 

The systems thinking might dig deeper to see why and might find that a new product was released but the sales people are trained up on it yet.  In this case the linear managers response would likely not improve the situation.  If instead he or she brought the proper training on the new product the problem might be solved quicker and easier. 

There are numerous benefits to systems thinking and using it to improve can have enormous benefit.  It helps to find leverage points in a system and find ways to improve that go beyond some of the limitations of thinking too linearly.