Systems thinking

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Systems thinking diagram

Systems thinking involves the use of various techniques to study systems of many kinds. In nature, examples of the objects of systems thinking include living systems in which various levels interact (cell, organ, individual, group, organization, community, earth). In organizations, systems consist of inputs, transformations, outputs, feedback loops, goals, stakeholders, and external influences that operate together to make an organization healthy or unhealthy.[citation needed]. Systems engineering is a discipline that applies systems thinking to design, build, operate, and maintain complex engineered systems.

History and overview[edit]

Systems thinking has roots in a diverse range of sources from Jan Smuts' holism in the 1920s, to the general systems theory that was advanced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s and cybernetics advanced 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.[1] Systems scientist Derek Cabrera's book Systems Thinking Made Simple claimed that systems thinking itself is the emergent property of complex adaptive system behavior that results from four simple rules of thought.[2]

Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving that attempts to balance holistic thinking and reductionistic thinking. By taking the overall system as well as its parts into account systems thinking is designed to avoid potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. There are many methods and approaches to systems thinking. For example, the Waters Foundation presents systems thinking as 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; and that systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.[3] Other models characterize systems thinking differently. Recent scholars, however, are focused on the "patterns that connect" this diversity or pluralism of methods and approaches.

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.[4] Standing in contrast to Descartes's scientific reductionism, 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 entire 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 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[edit]

Several ways to think of and define a system include:

  • a system is composed of parts
  • a systems is greater than the sum of its 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)
  • a system can be nested inside another system
  • a system can overlap with another system
  • a system is bounded in time, but may be intermittently operational
  • 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 (a car is not a system. A 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 a system (see open system).
  • A system is a community within an environment.
  • Energy, material, and information flow from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes or boundaries that may include negotiable limits.
  • Systems are often composed of entities that seek equilibrium but can exhibit patterns, cycling, oscillation, randomness, or chaos (see chaos theory), or exponential behavior (see Exponential Function).

A holistic system is any set (group) of interdependent or temporally interacting parts. Parts are generally systems themselves and 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 the following three categories based on the techniques or methodologies used to design, analyze, modify, or manage a system:

The systems approach[edit]

The systems thinking approach incorporates several tenets:[5]

  • Interdependence of objects and their attributes – independent elements can never constitute a system
  • Holismemergent 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 – 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 a:

  • "Profit making system" from the perspective of management and owners
  • "Distribution system" from the perspective of the suppliers
  • "Employment system" from the perspective of employees
  • "Materials supply system" from the perspective of customers
  • "Entertainment system" from the perspective of loiterers
  • "Social system" from the perspective of local residents
  • "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 affects other components.


Systems thinking is increasingly being used to tackle a wide variety of subjects in fields such as business analysis, business management, computing, engineering, epidemiology, information science, health, manufacture, sustainable development, and the environment.

Some examples:

Examples of systems frameworks[edit]

Hierarchical frameworks[edit]

A number of hierarchical frameworks have been developed, but such hierarchical frameworks have also been criticized in an article in the journal Philosophy of Science, which noted that they are plagued with conceptual deficiencies; the authors concluded that "the concept of discrete ontological levels does not succeed and has been used to motivate several problematic claims about the natural world".[6]

Kenneth Boulding's hierarchy of systems[edit]

The following table shows Kenneth E. Boulding's 1956 hierarchy of systems.[7][8]:126

 Level  Characteristic unit    Summary description
 (1)    framework              static systems
 (2)    clockwork              simple dynamic systems
 (3)    thermostat             control mechanisms and cybernetic systems
 (4)    cell                   open systems, or self-maintaining structures
 (5)    plant                  genetic/societal systems
 (6)    animal                 mobile, teleological systems with self-awareness
 (7)    human individual       animal systems with self-consciousness
 (8)    human society          social systems with self-consciousness
 (9)    transcendental idea    ultimate, absolutes, and inescapeable knowledges

Stephen Haines' seven levels of living systems[edit]

Stephen G. Haines' seven levels of living systems, published in 1998,[9] are in hierarchical relationships with each other, systems within systems. They begin with Earth as the largest living system and extend all the way down to cells, the smallest living system.[10]

 Level  System
 (1)    Cell
 (2)    Organ
 (3)    Individual organism
 (4)    Group, team or department
 (5)    Organization
 (6)    Society or community
 (7)    Earth

Stafford Beer's classification of systems[edit]

The following table shows Stafford Beer's 1959 classification of systems based on degrees of complexity and uncertainty.[11][8]:171

SYSTEMS             Simple          Complex         Exceedingly 
Deterministic   Window catch     Electronic digital   EMPTY
                Billiards        Planetary system
                Machine-shop     Automation
Probabilistic   Penny tossing    Stockholding         The economy
                Jellyfish        Conditioned          The brain  
                   movement         reflexed
                Statistical      Industrial           THE COMPANY
                quality control     profitability

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Senge, Peter (1990). The Fifth Discipline. Doubleday. 
  2. ^ Cabrera, D. and Cabrera, L. (2015) Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems. Ithaca, NY: Odyssean. ISBN 978-0996349307
  3. ^ "Definitions - Waters Foundation". Retrieved 20 October 2016. 
  4. ^ Capra, F. (1996) The web of life: a new scientific understanding of living systems (1st Anchor Books ed). New York: Anchor Books. p. 30
  5. ^ Skyttner, Lars (2006). General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspective, Practice. World Scientific Publishing Company. ISBN 981-256-467-5. 
  6. ^ Potochnik, Angela; McGill, Brian J. (January 2012). "The limitations of hierarchical organization". Philosophy of Science. 79 (1): 120–140. doi:10.1086/663237. JSTOR 10.1086/663237. 
  7. ^ Boulding, Kenneth Ewart (April 1956). "General systems theory: the skeleton of science" (PDF). Management Science. 2 (3): 197–208. JSTOR 2627132. 
  8. ^ a b Richardson, George P. (1991). Feedback thought in social science and systems theory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812230531. OCLC 22731896. 
  9. ^ Haines, Stephen G. (1998). The manager's pocket guide to systems thinking & learning. Amherst, MA: HRD Press. p. 15. ISBN 9781599967738. OCLC 43437180. 
  10. ^ Haines, Stephen G. (July 2010). "Systems thinking research rediscovered: Ludwig von Bertalanffy and the Society for General System's research's relevance in the 21st century". Proceedings of the 54th Annual Meeting of the ISSS – 2010, Waterloo, Canada. International Society for the Systems Sciences. 54 (1). ISSN 1999-6918. 
  11. ^ Beer, Stafford (1959/1967). Cybernetics and Management (London: English Universities Press, p. 18)


External links[edit]