Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization "healthy" or "unhealthy". Systems thinking has roots in the General System Theory that was advanced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s and furthered by Ross Ashby in the 1950s. The field was further developed by Jay Forrester and members of the Society for Organizational Learning at MIT which culminated in the popular book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge which defined Systems thinking as the capstone for true Organizational learning.
Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.
In systems science, it is argued that the only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs and persists is to understand the parts in relation to the whole. Standing in contrast to Descartes's scientific reductionism and philosophical analysis, it proposes to view systems in a holistic manner. Consistent with systems philosophy, systems thinking concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system.
Systems science thinking attempts to illustrate how small catalytic events that are separated by distance and time can be the cause of significant changes in complex systems. Acknowledging that an improvement in one area of a system can adversely affect another area of the system, it promotes organizational communication at all levels in order to avoid the silo effect. Systems thinking techniques may be used to study any kind of system — physical, biological, social, scientific, engineered, human, or conceptual.
The concept of a system
The several ways to think of and define a system include:.
- A system is composed of parts.
- All the parts of a system must be related (directly or indirectly), else there are really two or more distinct systems
- A system is encapsulated, has a boundary.
- The boundary of a system is a decision made by an observer, or a group of observers.
- A system can be nested inside another system.
- A system can overlap with another system.
- A system is bounded in time.
- A system is bounded in space, though the parts are not necessarily co-located.
- A system receives input from, and sends output into, the wider environment.
- A system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs.
- A system is autonomous in fulfilling its purpose. (Car is not a system. Car with a driver is a system.)
Systems science thinkers consider that:
- a system is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit circuit;
- energy, material and information flow among the different elements that compose the system;
- a system is a community situated within an environment;
- energy, material and information flow from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes or boundaries;
- systems are often composed of entities seeking equilibrium but can exhibit patterns, cycling, oscillating, chaotic, or exponential behavior.
A holistic system is any set (group) of interdependent or temporally interacting parts. Parts are generally systems themselves and are composed of other parts, just as systems are generally parts or holons of other systems.
Systems science and the application of systems science thinking has been grouped into three categories based on the techniques used to tackle a system:
- Hard systems — involving simulations, often using computers and the techniques of operations research/management science. Useful for problems that can justifiably be quantified. However it cannot easily take into account unquantifiable variables (opinions, culture, politics, etc.), and may treat people as being passive, rather than having complex motivations.
- Soft systems — For systems that cannot easily be quantified, especially those involving people holding multiple and conflicting frames of reference. Useful for understanding motivations, viewpoints, and interactions and addressing qualitative as well as quantitative dimensions of problem situations. Soft systems are a field that utilizes foundation methodological work developed by Peter Checkland, Brian Wilson and their colleagues at Lancaster University. Morphological analysis is a complementary method for structuring and analysing non-quantifiable problem complexes.
- Evolutionary systems — Béla H. Bánáthy developed a methodology that is applicable to the design of complex social systems. This technique integrates critical systems inquiry with soft systems methodologies. Evolutionary systems, similar to dynamic systems are understood as open, complex systems, but with the capacity to evolve over time. Bánáthy uniquely integrated the interdisciplinary perspectives of systems research (including chaos, complexity, cybernetics), cultural anthropology, evolutionary theory, and others.
The systems approach
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The systems thinking approach incorporates several tenets:
- Interdependence of objects and their attributes - independent elements can never constitute a system
- Holism - emergent properties not possible to detect by analysis should be possible to define by a holistic approach
- Goal seeking - systemic interaction must result in some goal or final state
- Inputs and outputs - in a closed system inputs are determined once and constant; in an open system additional inputs are admitted from the environment
- Transformation of inputs into outputs - this is the process by which the goals are obtained
- Entropy - the amount of disorder or randomness present in any system
- Regulation - a method of feedback is necessary for the system to operate predictably
- Hierarchy - complex wholes are made up of smaller subsystems
- Differentiation - specialized units perform specialized functions
- Equifinality - alternative ways of attaining the same objectives (convergence)
- Multifinality - attaining alternative objectives from the same inputs (divergence)
A treatise on systems thinking ought to address many issues including:
- Encapsulation of a system in space and/or in time
- Active and passive systems (or structures)
- Transformation by an activity system of inputs into outputs
- Persistent and transient systems
- Evolution, the effects of time passing, the life histories of systems and their parts.
- Design and designers.
- Using the tenet of "multifinality", a supermarket could be considered to be:
- a "profit making system" from the perspective of management and owners
- a "distribution system" from the perspective of the suppliers
- an "employment system" from the perspective of employees
- a "materials supply system" from the perspective of customers
- an "entertainment system" from the perspective of loiterers
- a "social system" from the perspective of local residents
- a "dating system" from the perspective of single customers
As a result of such thinking, new insights may be gained into how the supermarket works, why it has problems, how it can be improved or how changes made to one component of the system may impact the other components.
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Systems science thinking is increasingly being used to tackle a wide variety of subjects in fields such as computing, engineering, epidemiology, information science, health, manufacture, management, sustainable development, and the environment. Professor Rajagopal, EGADE Business School, building on the work of Ferdinand Tönnies has suggested the application of systems thinking in developing marketing strategy from the perspectives of corporate business restructuring in the post-economic recession situations.
- Urban planning
- Organizational architecture
- Job design
- Team Population and Work Unit Design
- Linear and Complex Process Design
- The Limits to Growth
- System safety
- Reliability Engineering
- Systems Engineering
- Safety Engineering
- System design
- Business continuity planning with FMEA protocol
- Critical Infrastructure Protection via FBI Infragard
- Delphi method — developed by RAND for USAF
- Futures studies — Thought leadership mentoring
- The public sector including examples at The Systems Thinking Review
- Leadership development
- Oceanography — forecasting complex systems behavior
- Quality function deployment (QFD)
- Quality management
- Quality storyboard — StoryTech framework (LeapfrogU-EE)
- Software quality
- Program management
- Project management
- The Vanguard Method
- Linear thinking
- Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
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- Illustration is made by Marcel Douwe Dekker (2007) based on an own standard and Pierre Malotaux (1985), "Constructieleer van de mensenlijke samenwerking", in BB5 Collegedictaat TU Delft, pp. 120-147.
- Senge, Peter (1990). The Fifth Discpline. Doubleday.
- Capra, F. (1996) The web of life: a new scientific understanding of living systems (1st Anchor Books ed). New York: Anchor Books. p. 30
- Skyttner, Lars (2006). General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspective, Practice. World Scientific Publishing Company. ISBN 981-256-467-5.
- Hoshin planning methods
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