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Understanding systems thinking concepts and workplace applications

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Kathryn Uhles, Dean, College of Business and IT

Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

This article was updated on April 29, 2024.
 

Have you ever met people who see things from a 10,000-foot view? They look at the big picture rather than get derailed by details, and they’re good at assessing problems before taking action. Such people are probably good “systems thinkers.”

What is a systems thinker? It’s someone who recognizes that a sum is greater than its parts — that all the pieces of an organization connect, interact and play a part in outcomes.

Read on for a systems thinking definition, key elements, examples and ideas on how you might use systems-level thinking in your own educational journey or career.

Systems thinking can be applied in business and healthcare settings. Learn more about online management degrees at UOPX!

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a way to approach issues by looking at them as systems. Rather than considering only how to solve an immediate problem, you consider how all of the pieces connect to make the whole.

University of Phoenix instructor Michael Marticek, DBA, MBA, 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 work.

“It gets made to sound so tricky,” he says. “But it’s really just logic.”

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 what systems thinking is. 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 (budgets, resources) 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?

Six key elements of systems thinking 

Marticek says six key building blocks are key to understanding what systems thinking is:

  1. Interconnections: Projects and people are connected. A systems thinking approach identifies those connections and considers all of them.
  2. Emergence: This is the phenomenon of a larger idea, function, property or outcome that results from the interaction of smaller parts. It often is a better solution than could be gleaned from simply looking at the individual parts in isolation.
  3. Synthesis: This means combining two or more components in a system to form something new that helps us understand the entire system better or to build a better system. “Sometimes you’re combining old ways to make a new way. Sometimes you gain new information and create something new,” Marticek says.
  4. Feedback loops: Feedback loops illustrate via charts or diagrams the feedback between various parts of a system. “You gather different pieces of the pie, and at the end, hopefully you have an outcome,” Marticek says.
  5. Causality: Causality looks at how one thing influences others in an interconnected system.
  6. Systems mapping: Systems mapping is the chart or flow that will inform decision-making. “If you hand this to an executive, this flow diagram will help them understand what is needed to make the change,” Marticek says.

For this process to work, buy-in from the top-down and bottom-up is essential. “If you’re going to alter your business or organization, you have to have a new vision. This is the road everyone is on. Everyone has to be on board with the process — you can’t have holdouts who think, ‘My idea is the best,’” Marticek says.

What is a systems thinker? 

A systems thinker is someone who is able to look at a complex system and consider its interconnectedness and interdependencies, not just its isolated components.

Effective systems thinkers usually have an open mind and think holistically, rather than rely on a predictable formula or a linear approach. Marticek says those who operate from a systems thinking perspective:

  • Are curious
  • Find root causes
  • Have an open mind
  • Are good listeners

“If you have ‘I-know-everything’ executives, this never works. People will try to dismantle that process because of frustration with the person creating it,” he says.

Systems thinking often involves considering a number of components, including humans, machinery or equipment, and the environment, and how they work together.

One systems thinking example in the workplace is organizing supply chains, which are highly complex and often involve multiple suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and customers. Another example is project management, which involves designing schedules, considering competing priorities and anticipating potential delays to make sure that projects can be completed on time and within budget.

Those who have an interest in this type of analysis may want to consider a bachelor’s degree in data science to help them gain the necessary education to succeed in this role. With a wide range of applicable industries, a degree in data science is an option for enhancing or beginning a new career. 

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Application of systems thinking across industries 

The application of systems thinking is used across a wide range of fields and industries, especially business, healthcare and education. The University of Phoenix degree and certificate programs in these areas integrate systems thinking into the curriculum to help ensure that you are equipped to tackle the challenges ahead by envisioning workable solutions.

Systems thinking in healthcare

Systems thinking in healthcare can help with everything from improving patient outcomes to developing a more streamlined billing process. Examples of systems thinking in this industry include:

  • Considering social, cultural and emotional factors affecting a patient’s health to identify optimal treatment
  • Figuring out how to improve quality of care by integrating treatment plans across primary care facilities, specialists, and urgent or emergency care
  • Analyzing data on demographics, healthcare usage and disease to improve population health and services within communities

Systems thinking in business

Although various departments within a company may be working toward a common goal, they may also be competing for the same resources, implementing different project requirements, or prioritizing different outcomes for success. The ability to design effective solutions and anticipate issues ahead of time is critical to business success. Knowing how to apply systems thinking to business processes and operations management can help to ensure that departments are working together rather than against each other.

A systems thinking approach can be applied to business situations such as:

  • Managing airline fleet maintenance, setting flight schedules and arranging sufficient staffing
  • Planning a marketing campaign while also considering customer personas, budgets, legal constraints and competitors’ efforts
  • Implementing new customer-service software that may require additional employee training or reveal incompatibilities in other systems

Those interested in applying systems thinking in business will want to consider a bachelor’s degree in management or an operations management certificate to begin their career.

Systems thinking in education

Systems thinking provides a powerful framework for understanding and addressing the interconnected factors that affect teaching and learning. This thinking can help educators and administrators develop strategies to better support students as well as the institutions themselves.

What is systems thinking in education? It can include:

  • Developing lessons and programs that build on past learning and are appropriate for the student’s age and educational level
  • Ensuring programs are aligned with required competencies and current and future workforce needs
  • Assessing learning outcomes to identify areas for improvement or gaps in curricula and programming

In all of these fields, questions like “What am I not seeing here?” or “What's under the iceberg that I don’t understand?” can help you begin to grasp the whole system.

Learn systems thinking at University of Phoenix

If you’re interested in learning more about the mechanics of systems thinking and the ways it can be applied in business, healthcare, education and other fields, UOPX teaches these and other vital skills in the following programs:

  • Bachelor of Science in Data Science: In this program you’ll gain the fundamental knowledge needed to analyze, manipulate and process data sets using statistical software. Learn extract, transform and load (ETL) processes for integrating data sets for business intelligence platforms. Discover techniques to transform structured and unstructured data sets into meaningful information to identify patterns and drive strategic decision-making.
  • Bachelor of Science in Management: Learn what it takes to improve and optimize organizational effectiveness and productivity in a dynamic and evolving workplace. Develop and apply career-relevant skills in a practical way with coursework in leadership, operations and logistics, project management and strategic management — all of which will help you align resources, improve communication and make key decisions in various industries. 
  • Operations Management Certificate: The Operations Management Certificate provides you with a strategic approach to managing the performance of business planning, global sourcing and procurement, production, and logistical activities within an organization. Evaluate quality management approaches within business operations, implement project management best practices, and identify sourcing opportunities and logistical improvements that can enhance organizational efficiency.
  • Project Management Certificate (Undergraduate): Learn about project planning, project coordination, strategic planning, business process and more. In this program you’ll also learn how to estimate project costs and build timelines and use project management software.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A journalist-turned-marketer, Laurie Davies has been writing since her high school advanced composition teacher told her she broke too many rules. She has worked with University of Phoenix since 2017, and currently splits her time between blogging and serving as lead writer on the University’s Academic Annual Report. Previously, she has written marketing content for MADD, Kaiser Permanente, Massage Envy, UPS, and other national brands. She lives in the Phoenix area with her husband and son, who is the best story she’s ever written. 

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