Systems thinking, to define the term a bit, is the ability to understand not only the process you are examining, but also how that process fits into the overall picture, and what the interrelationships of these processes are.
Since ‘systems thinking’ is not a common term, I keep two of my favorite examples of system thinking, that most folks seem to ‘get’, in my back pocket. These are:
The conductor of the symphony orchestra: Not only does s/he have to ensure that each piece is working the way it’s supposed to, s/he has to ensure that everything is in balance. Sub-optimization occurs when the conductor starts to focus on one area – say, strings – more than the others, bringing the string section volume up to the point where it starts to negatively affect the overall piece being played.
A good conductor will ensure that all sections of the symphony are in balance, producing an optimized product – the piece being performed.
General contractor on a house/office building build: The contractor has the responsibility to understand what each group is contracted to do, and to ensure that the steps are done in the correct order.
We don’t want the sheetrock installers putting up walls before we have the plumbing and electrical conduits run; it’ll make the job lots harder. And, let’s not install the wood floors until we have the roof on, OK, guys? Despite what you may see on Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, most jobs are not done by hundreds of folks at once.
The general contractor is responsible for bringing in the build on time, to budget, and with no “oops”. S/he does this by keeping in mind what the final product will be – and then ensuring that each piece is completed in alignment with the overall design/purpose.
So now that we have systems thinking defined, why do so many folks find it hard to do so? I think it may be because we are focused on the details as part of our makeup. We’ve been taught, and often rewarded, for attention to detail.
If we want to have a big breakfast on the weekend, we have to:
- decide on the menu (bacon and pancakes with orange juice and fresh fruit)
- go shopping for ingredients missing
- prepare each item per directions (bacon crispy, pancakes cooked but not burned, etc.)
- figure out how to get them all on the table, at the correct temperature (orange juice and fruit cold, bacon and pancakes hot), within 2 mins of each other
Now we take that talent for detail thinking, and say, “Great! Let’s think about this at the systems level.” Systems level? What the heck is that? I’m just trying to get the kids’ pancakes cooked so they look like Mickey Mouse and they’re not soggy!
Systems thinking might involve how breakfast fits into the other activities for the day – “I want to give the kids a big breakfast so we don’t have to stop for lunch when we’re out running errands”; or “since they like pancakes, I’ll tell them they have to be dressed and ready to go out before allowing them to sit down at breakfast – that’ll get them motivated to stop watching cartoons and to get dressed”. It might also involve their health – either “getting some meat on them bones” by starting them out with a hearty breakfast, or making a conscious decision to feed them something less than fully nutritional (bacon) as a treat.
I hope you have the idea of what I mean by systems thinking. These non-business examples should be something that anyone in any business can relate to.
Now that we’ve defined systems thinking, stay tuned for our next installment when we discuss/demonstrate some business examples of when systems thinking saves the day… and to be sure you don’t miss it, feel free to click on the RSS or fave links!