Instructor: David Schuff, Section 003

Systems thinking

Systems Thinking in Public Health

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Health practitioners’ capacity to understand and think through complex challenges can be enhanced through the use of systems thinking tools. Utilizing systems thinking tools such as BOT or Behavior Over Time graphs along with data from other systems across the healthcare industry can aid in the overall improvement of public health. These tools allow for health practitioners to not only analyze trends, but also analyze the events and systematic forces that play into the development of such trends. Additionally, systems thinking in this way creates the opportunity for health practitioners to discuss freely and creatively, therefore providing a more holistic, deeper understanding of trends in public health. BOT graphs are also useful tools in advancing the systems-level thinking in public health. Studies show systems thinking in public health also increases the engagement of stakeholders surrounding these issues. In my opinion, by applying system thinking, health practitioners can enhance their ability to analyze trends in public health and allow for a heightened sense of creativity surrounding their proposed solutions to these trends. A question I would like to pose is: in addition to BOT graphs and analysis, how else could systems thinking be useful in public health? Is it purely advantageous in an analytical sense, or are there other benefits to systems thinking in public health?



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 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.

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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