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What is systems thinking?

At a glance

Have you ever met people who intuitively 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.”

A systems thinking approach means recognizing that a sum is greater than its parts — that all the pieces of an organization connect, interact and play a part in outcomes.

Put another way, according to Study.com, “systems thinking is based on the idea that all key processes in an organization are interrelated” — and they work together to achieve a common goal.

Are you tracking so far? If so, systems concepts are probably in your DNA.

If you’re like the rest of us, 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 an online Bachelor of Science in Management or a Bachelor of Science in Health Management today!

What is systems thinking?

Is systems thinking a framework? A philosophy? A diagnostic tool?

Yes.

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?

When should I use systems thinking?

Marticek says systems theory can be used to solve complex problems at work, in school or at home. The key is to apply a systems perspective when problems have many interrelated parts.

Systems thinking is critical to good business. Read how University of Phoenix alum Dennis Trujillo used his business skills to succeed at Boeing.

According to The Systems Thinker, if a problem meets these four criteria, it could benefit from a systems thinking approach:

  • The issue is important.
  • The problem is recurring.
  • The problem is familiar and has known history.
  • People have unsuccessfully tried to solve the problem.

Key elements of systems thinking

Marticek says systems thinking has six key building blocks:

1.    Interconnections: Projects and people are connected. A systems thinking approach identifies those connections. This shifts the problem from a linear solution to a circular solution.

2.    Emergence: The opposite of working “in silos,” emergence is where a larger idea or outcome is born from smaller parts. It often is a better solution than any single “silo” could have designed.

3.    Synthesis: This means combining two or more things to create something new. “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: This is the step that makes whiteboard geeks drool. 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 another in an interconnected system.

6.    Systems mapping: Again, whiteboard geeks unite! 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.

Characteristics of systems thinkers

Systems thinking may seem formulaic, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Rather than work a linear, predictable formula, effective systems thinkers usually have an open mind. 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.

What are examples of systems thinking?

The earlier example of a gear looked at a mechanical system. That can be complicated, but not nearly as complicated as human systems or ecosystems.

Marticek refers his students to a real-life example from Borneo in the 1950s. The people were suffering from an outbreak of malaria, so they went to the World Health Organization (WHO). A decision was made to spray pesticide to control the malaria outbreak.

This killed malaria-carrying bugs, but it also killed wasps, which controlled a worm population. Worms ate through the thatch roofs, many of which collapsed.

The pesticides also were ingested by other insects, which were the food for local lizards, which were the food for local cats. Eventually, cats died off from pesticide poisoning, which caused the rat population to explode. In the end, one infestation was traded for another.

“Thinking one thing would solve the problem created multiple problems along the way,” Marticek says. Systems thinking takes into account the possible ripple effects of an idea before a decision is made.

What is systems thinking in an organization?

Now, let’s apply this to an organization. Let’s say you’ve got a favorite delivery app or home delivery company that’s trying to quickly connect goods or transportation with people in a diverse geographic area.

 

“Everyone is trying to compete in record time,” Marticek says. “If they’re late, you as the customer might even get 50% of your money back.”

 

But behind the scenes, morale may be crumbling, drivers may not be able to stop for adequate nutrition or bathroom breaks, and there may even be an unintended consequence of roads that are less safe as drivers push the limits of getting from point A to point B. Wrecks, insurance claims and employee turnover may all be high.

 

Someone using a systems thinking approach would look at individual decisions and their systematic consequences.

 

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

  • The complexities of managing airline fleet maintenance and setting schedules, and staffing for on-time arrivals.
  • The difficulties a marketing department may have in getting projects out the door — as finance, legal, creative and business realities collide.
  • The implementation of a new software that addresses customer service issues but may trigger business inefficiencies or require large expenses.

How can I practice systems thinking?

In review, systems thinking looks at all parts of an overall system — rather than isolating them into individual sections. A systems thinker tries to expand the range of options available for solving a problem.

This can be helpful at work, in a volunteer organization, in your educational journey or at home.

Curiosity — rather than criticism — can be a great starting point. Questions like, “What am I not seeing here,” or, “What's under the iceberg that I don’t understand,” can help.

From there:

  • Find the interrelated connections.
  • See what outcomes emerge.
  • Consider how you might be able to synthesize two or more things to make a new thing.
  • Connect feedback between different parts of the system.
  • Examine how one thing influences another thing (think: Pesticides! Rats!).
  • Make your plan, keeping in mind the possible ripple effects and consequences of your decision.

See? No sweat.