Systems thinking has been around for a long time but only emerged as a discipline
within the last 100 years. In particular, scientists and psychologists through the
study of living organisms and the relationship between the human mind and body respectively
were the first to put systems thinking into practice.
Systems thinking allows us to look at people, problems, events or just about anything
in terms of context, relationship, interconnectedness and hierarchy. There are two
general guiding principles to systems:
1. The whole is not the same as the sum of the parts.
The whole cannot simply be discerned from the parts. Properties or characteristics
displayed by a system do not exist when the parts are considered individually. The
interrelationships of the parts, unique to a particular organizational arrangement
of the parts, defines the system.
For example: an automobile is an example of a system made up of many parts and subsystems.
The oil subsystem circulates lubricant throughout parts of the engine and is effective
to temperatures approaching minus 60 degrees F. However, the radiator and water
pump which circulate coolant around the engine will not function under the same conditions. Below minus 40 degrees
F, the coolant freezes and cracks the engine block. While one of the
parts displays properties compatible with the minus 60 degrees
F, the system as a whole functions only to about minus 40 degrees
2. Systems are not discrete
Systems are not bounded by levels, physical constraints or other. When we define
one system, it is a collection of other subsystems and a subset of
an infinite number of greater systems. And again, the properties exhibited by the
system we have defined are not necessarily representative of the properties exhibited
by the greater and lesser systems.
Example: the human body is perhaps the second most important system that exists
(to us!). The most important is the earth we live on. Human beings are simply subsets
of the earth, and the human body is made up of many other subsets such as our digestive
system, our nervous system, and our circulatory system, etc. The state or well-being
of any of these systems is directly affected by the other systems with which they
So why do we care?
Systems are everywhere and affect every aspect of our lives. Businesses are
an example of a system. Businesses are complex systems that are created to add value
to the world around them, particularly for direct stakeholders:
- Shareholders want return on investment
- Employees want a sense of worth, fair wages and a safe working environment
- The local and global community want minimized impact and appropriately managed waste
arising from products and byproducts
- Customers want their needs determined, fulfilled and delivered upon (timing, price
- Suppliers want to understand their role in the supply chain so they can fulfill
their customer’s needs
To accomplish this task, businesses use a Management System to determine stakeholder
needs, translate the needs into internal requirements, provide the necessary resources,
fulfill the requirements and review performance to improve and continually repeat the
Sounds simple in theory, but as we all know from running or participating in businesses,
the complexity of the real world makes this much more difficult. Many of the problems
facing companies today stem from anti-systemic thinking. To avoid this pitfall,
our job is to define our organization as a system necessary to:
- Fulfill stakeholder requirements
- Drive continual improvement of the system (not only localized improvement)
Understanding system complexity is essential to effectively managing a system.