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Systems thinking provides direction to solve problems

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.  

Systems thinking provides direction to solve problems

Scott Miker

I read a lot of articles on systems thinking and one thing that I notice is that many times they focus too much on the negative.  They point to a large system and show how the structures reinforce something bad or we can never improve as a society because of too much linear thinking.

Systems thinkers become expert critics of everyone and everything else around them.  Sometimes they use it to be smarter than everyone they talk to.

To me this misses the whole point of systems thinking.  Using systems thinking instead of linear thinking simply means that we find different ways to attack problems.   

Instead of this becoming a dismal science or some new tool that critics use to always sound right, it should become an empowering tool that we can turn to in times of chaos and confusion to help us clearly see the best steps to take to improve. 

One thing that has helped me was to study the Tao Te Ching.  The Tao has many parallels with systems thinking and books have been written comparing the two. 

Reading the Tao, for me, gave me a sense of calmness.  It showed that the system may be flawed in some ways or that bad things happen to people, but overall the system is what it is.  The events in life are anything but perfect but seen through the lens of the Tao or seen through systems thinking they make sense. 

Systems thinking then becomes a new language and new way of seeing reality.  It gives us options for improvement and shows us that it may be extremely difficult to have any real change over an embedded system without doing lots of work.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge states, “Reality is made up of circles but we see straight lines.  Herein lie the beginnings of our limitation as systems thinkers.  One of the reasons for this fragmentation in our thinking stems from our language.  Language shapes perception.  What we see depends on what we are prepared to see.  Western languages, with their subject-verb-object structure, are biased toward a linear view.  If we want to see system wide interrelationships, we need a language of interrelationships, a language made up of circles.  Without such a language, our habitual ways of seeing the world produce fragmented views and counterproductive actions.”

So using systems thinking isn’t a way to sit back and criticize others or complain about current systems structures.  It is a way to improve by thinking through problems differently than we are taught to do.  It gives us more of the full picture and a better understanding that we can then use to avoid making the mistakes that tend to follow linear thinking. 

Here is an example: You recently hired a new person to start building a new type of widget at your company.  They are the first person to build this particular widget so you don’t have a lot of information on what it takes to build.  But you did research and built prototypes and determined that it should take about 15 minutes to build. 

When you first train them they seem to work very slowly.  You start to monitor their time per widget and determine that it takes them over 25 minutes on average to complete one widget.

This is where many managers (using linear thinking) would respond.  They would say that they hired the wrong person for the job; they need to discipline the new employee to show them how important it is that they work quickly; or they need to constantly watch this person to make sure they are doing what they should be doing.  All of these responses come from a linear, seek-to-blame mindset. 

Systems thinking provides more of a seek-to-understand mindset.  The information presented here is just a very small snapshot of the problem.  If we really want to see what is happening we have to better understand the process and why it is taking so long. 

There may be one-off situations that change the process but aren’t accounted for in the initial 15-minute estimate, causing longer times when these come up.  It could be that doing it in 15 minutes is completely unrealistic.  It could be that the tools the individual is using aren’t the best tools for the job.  It could be that there are constant distractions for the individual causing them to always lose their train of thought and start over.  And it could be that the employee is slacking off.  But without more information, we really don’t know why it is taking so long and how we can speed up the process. 

Many of us want to get to answers quickly and taking the time to think through the full system means that we don’t get to the answer immediately.  We usually have to evaluate the system in order to see where there are feedback loops, leverage points, etc.  But after we do we have a much better chance of responding with a solution that works rather than a solution that only addresses a small portion of the full problem.    

So instead of using systems thinking to form criticisms of everything you can think of, start to use it to find better solutions to problems.  That is where the power of systems thinking lies, in the ability to help us improve.