Is systems thinking a framework? A philosophy? A diagnostic tool?
It can be all those things. By one definition, systems thinking is literally a system of thinking about systems.
University of Phoenix instructor Dr. Michael Marticek teaches systems thinking and explains the concept to his students this way: With systems thinking, you solve problems by investigating factors and outcomes of those factors on your operation or educational work.
“It gets made to sound so tricky,” he says. “But it’s really just logic.”
It might help to view systems thinking as a puzzle, and how the pieces connect to each other to make the whole. A systems perspective is the opposite of “working in a silo.”
Here’s a simple example. Let’s say you’ve got a piece of machinery in which one pesky gear keeps breaking. Instead of replacing that same gear over and over, a systems thinking approach might look at the gear’s construction and design (casting, forging, metallurgy), the operational conditions (weight, friction, torque, noise), the environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, sanitation), and the maintenance (cleanliness, lubrication). Various interconnected factors could be affecting the gear’s performance and durability.
An iceberg metaphor is often used to describe systems thinking. With an iceberg, there’s what we see above the water, and the much bigger, unseen portion underwater.
Continuing with this metaphor, a systems thinker might approach a problem by asking:
- What could be under the surface that we don’t see?
- What are the conditions (workplace expectations, staffing issues, budget constraints, etc.) that influence the problem?
- What issues, people or systems are working together to create what is seen above the water?
- What ripple effects might be created by our ideas/solutions?