Instructor: David Schuff, Section 003


Systems Thinking in Supply Chain Management

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Most every industry has a complex supply chain working behind the scenes to gather components, assemble them into products, and ship them to stores to sell to consumers. These supply chains are often complex with many moving parts and, in more cases than not, relying on third parties to carry out one or more of the tasks along the supply chain, such as manufacturing or fulfillment. It is imperative to apply systems thinking to supply chains because when all parts of the supply chain act independently there are a variety of issues that arise. One major issue is the bullwhip effect which is when supply chain members use independent forecasting methods that project incoming demand upwards to maximize potential profit. Once these forecasts make it down the supply chain they compound and produce a massive false demand resulting in excess inventory for supply chain members upstream. By applying systems thinking to the supply chain, members can map out how certain actions will affect other members of the supply chain and reduce bullwhip effect volatility. What other risks arise when supply chain members act independently? Can these risks be mitigated or avoided by applying systems thinking?


Systems Thinking and Climate Change

Before discussing Systems Thinking in this class, I was exposed to the theory in the Environment GenEd. To truly understand the effect Climate Change is having on the Earth, a Systems Thinking approach must be used to incorporate all aspects of ecology. The holistic analysis of ecology is called systems ecology, which focuses on the interactions between biological and ecological systems. Systems ecology allows us to identify the influence human activities are having on the environment. An example of Systems Thinking in ecology is the study of declining populations of muskoxen in the arctic, whose cause of death remained mysterious until scientists applied a Systems Thinking approach to their research. According to lead researcher Joel Berger, a Colorado State University professor and senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, rising temperatures cause precipitation to fall as rain, which then freezes and leaves plants, the main food source for muskoxen, inaccessible. Berger and his team of researchers have also discovered that a herd of muskoxen died after becoming encased in ice during a powerful tidal surge, an event caused by rising sea levels and extreme temperatures related to climate change. Separating the muskoxen’s ecosystem into “systems” helped identify the cause of death, and the cause of that cause of death. Ecosystems contain biotic factors, such as plants and the muskoxen themselves, and abiotic factors, such as water, weather and temperature.

Systems Thinking Blind Spots in US Foreign Policy

A good example of an institution that could have, and can still, benefit from systems thinking is the United States government, particularly in its approach to foreign policy in the Middle East. In our reading, we learned that systems thinking is especially valuable in situations where the same problem persists or has been made worse by past attempts to fix it. My view on this is not meant to be an oversimplification of the cultural and political influences in the Middle East that are beyond the scope of US government involvement. It is more an observation that historic US involvement in the area can be characterized by huge blind spots in the systems thinking approach. These blind spots are summarized by Jamie P. Monat as “failure to recognize unintended consequences, failure to recognize and understand feedback loops, fixes that fail, poor root-cause analysis, and seeking the wrong goal”(article link). One commonly scrutinized example is the CIA’s involvement in the arming of civilians in the 1980’s to combat Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. This approach demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the underlying sentiments and values of the nation, leading to a failure to predict what would happen once the objective was met. The unforeseen consequences of this are still felt today, almost four decades later. Since then, the US government has persisted in its interventions in the Middle East with questionable success. In developing future foreign policy it would be incredibly beneficial to incorporate a systems thinking approach to better understand and solve complex problems and avoid unintended consequences.

Medical Imaging Devices can be hacked too

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Cybersecurity researchers in Israel found out that hacks against Medical Imaging devices are increasing where hacks targeting MRI and CT scanning have the greatest risk. The reason these cyber attacks pose a huge risk is that they can be fatal if a tumor is added in error or there is any delay of analysis. Unfortunately for the hospital staff and patients, strict regulations don’t allow to keep these machines updated due to potential software incompatibility and bugs. System thinking can and should be applied in order to effectively solve many of security threats in the healthcare industry. Hackers tend to understand human habits and the interdependence of systems which allows them to exploit multiple systems in one breach. In order for security to improve, medical IT employees should start viewing their systems as interdependent structures rather than separate systems when configuring and implementing new technologies. While it’s incredibly hard to manage risk of code defects, hospitals can use system thinking to minimize potential breaches by keeping their systems updated and ensuring that the entire system is configured in an isolated manner while flexible enough to work with other systems at the same time. How do you think hospitals can address this issue using system thinking?

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When School Systems Don’t Work

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Systems thinking extends beyond just a framework for approaching IT solutions because almost everything we interact with is a system in some aspect. Systems thinking is crucial in The U.S. Education System yet this form of analysis is not always implemented. With any system, there is a chance that it will break if the parts are not viewed in an integrated manner. For example, the school to prison pipeline phenomenon arose due to “quick” or “easy” solutions that ignored the interrelated components of the system. The inputs of the education system—access to quality teachers, proper funding, and the opportunity for growth and counsel are necessary to produce the output—educated and skilled individuals that will contribute to society. Not all schools have an adequate amount of these inputs, which lessens the likelihood that these students will succeed. Additionally, certain practices cause unintended consequences. Many schools in poor and urban areas, with a predominately black and Latino student population, have reverted to zero-tolerance policies and increased police presence to combat issues within the school environment. With these policies in place, more kids are expelled or arrested. As a result, they are more likely to become involved in criminal activity and not complete their schooling. These tactics focus more on removing the problem instead of implementing a long-term and beneficial solution.  A more systems thinking approach would incorporate programs that focused on social, cognitive, and behavioral skill building for students at risk of violent or illegal behavior. This solution would better recognize students, especially those of color, as valued members instead of as disposable parts of the system.


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Where and when do we meet?
Alter Hall 603
12:30-1:50 Tuesdays and Thursdays
Office Hours
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:00-3:00 PM