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The power of systems thinking

MIS 5001 - Mandviwalla - Systems ThinkingSystems thinking is a powerful tool for thinking about the world. It can be used as the basis for automating, simplifying, improving, and changing almost any aspect of an organization. Does systems thinking have a downside? What is it good for? And more importantly what is it not good for?

13 Responses to The power of systems thinking

  • Avatar of Homero Murzi
    Homero Murzi says:

    I believe one of the most complex issues in Systems thinking is communication. When Bertalanffy created the General Systems Theory one of the major criticism was about how to obtain information about the environment and incorporate this information into all the subsystems. In the organizational field this means how to obtain crucial information from the external world (clients, government, society, providers, competence) and use this information to improve the open system (organization) and integrate all the functional departments to use correctly this information. The good thing is with technological advances nowadays is possible to obtain more useful information and to process it in all the different functional areas inside the organization.

  • Systems thinking is a useful tool when it comes to planning ahead for an organization or trying to improve the efficiency and performance of the organization as a whole. However systems thinking is not useful for dealing with high priority issues that require an immediate decision. For example consider a particular department has failed a particular audit compliance check. The most pressing issue will be to fix the compliance issues now. Generally the root of the problem is within that department itself. Perhaps the manager was slacking. Perhaps there was a high attrition rate within the department. It is an issue localized to a particular area and the urgency of the matter does not give us the luxury of time.
    In these cases, it is better to go with a quick and dirty solution rather than consider systems thinking. The priority is to get a temporary solution implemented so we are on our way to remedying the problem as soon as possible. Systems thinking can be used once the firefighting stage is over and we are looking at ways to prevent a similar problem from occurring again in the same department or other departments. This is when we should consider how entities within the system can interact and support each other.

  • Avatar of
    Katrina Liu says:

    I don’t see this conversation as one of agreeing v. disagreeing. The running theme across all these comments is that a system operates in a larger environment. Indeed, only in a larger environment does a system have any relevance; it explains the system’s functionality and purpose.

    But let’s go back to the original question of whether systems thinking has a downside. It’s tempting to see systems as a panacea for the business world’s woes. It increases efficiency and productivity while allowing the workforce to focus on more sophisticated activities. Every firm wants this. But the effectiveness of a system relies on the quality of its inputs and resources. In other words, a system is only as good as people make it. Our readings this week, especially for ERP, clearly illustrate the high costs that ill-fit systems can inflict on an organization. Systems thinking can be erroneous if it focuses only on technology or automation. Rather, true systems thinking must comprehend the massive amount of human capital required to make a system successful.

    • Excellent comment. Take a look at “socio-technical systems theory” – it was partially created to address your comment.

    • I agree Katrina. The bigger issue is not whether one agrees or disagrees but whether one appreciates how the downsides (if any) apply to his/her particular organization. From my perspective, the downside of systems thinking in an organization is forcing definitions and standardization on a set of processes that are not easily defined or standard. In a healthcare delivery environment, there are certainly processes that repeat, which would imply the ability to utilize an automated systems-based process to generate improvements. However, the fundamental structure of the environment, i.e. whether lab tests are completed off-site, may prevent an automated system from actually increasing efficiency. Nevertheless, for any business process or set of tasks that can be objectively defined and standardized, I don’t think there is a downside to systems thinking.

  • Thanks for raising this point Marissa. It reminded me of a statement that “in any subject concerned with rational intervention in human affairs, theory must lead to practice; but practice is the source of theory: neither theory nor practice is prime.” So, at this point, your view sounds make sense to me.

    However, I tend to agree with Rohit and Serena that every system has a purpose within a larger system. All of a system’s parts must be present for the system to carry out its purpose optimally. A system’s parts must be arranged in a specific way for the system to carry out its purpose. Systems change in response to feedback. Systems maintain their stability by making adjustments based on feedback.

    So, systems thinking for me is not static but dynamic. Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA that we learn in Operations Management is one of good examples of dynamic systems thinking for me.

  • I disagree somewhat with Serena and Rohit. “Evolutionary Systems Thinking” is based on the concept that a system can incorporate feedback into its dynamic to evolve over time. However, I believe the weakness here lies in the fact that constant adaptation does not foster automation, decreasing the overall efficiency of the system.

    • Avatar of Rohit R Nair
      Rohit R Nair says:

      I believe you, Serena and me are getting to the same point that the System cannot be automated completely. But as far as the feedback to the system is concerned, it is calculated on the basis of some form of comparison between the received output and the expected output. The expected output is calculated by considering a number of variables that may be internal or external to the system. A change in the external environment such as preferences, technological advancement etc may add more variables to the equation or affect the weights associated with a few of the variables. In such a scenario the feedback to the system based on the old variables would not be sufficient for the system to evolve and incorporate the new changes.

  • Avatar of Serena
    Serena says:

    Nice post, Rohit. I agree with you about the changing environment and how systems thinking would not accommodate it. We experienced this in our class exercise last week. To further your comment about what systems thinking is good for, it is useful in addressing complex situations by thinking within different perspectives and viewpoints – essentially, in a more holistic way. Furthermore, it is good to conduct systems thinking at the beginning and end of a situation or cycle to measure fluidity.

    • What is it about systems thinking that would make it difficult to accomodate changing environments?

      • Avatar of Serena
        Serena says:

        Systems thinking is more useful for addressing the big picture. It’s difficult to accommodate changing environments with this thinking because the changes could be due to a root problem within the system and in that case, it requires more attention to detail rather than a holistic viewpoint. Additionally, systems thinking can only accomplish so much if the external factors outside of the system that affect it are changing and there is no control.

  • Avatar of Rohit R Nair
    Rohit R Nair says:

    Since Systems Thinking emphasizes the relationship between sub-systems it becomes simpler to meet the needs of these sub-systems within the context of the system. But the weakness in this case is the fact that Systems Thinking forces us to consider the System as well as the surrounding environment as concrete entities. Whereas, the environment is always in a state of flux and there is always a possibility of a change within the system. These factors are not completely addressed through systems thinking.