Read more about Systems Thinking
The Intelligence Advantage: Organizing for Complexity, M. McMaster, 1995
Ten Steps to a Learning Organization , P. Kline & B. Saunders, 1993
Learning Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s Workplace , S. Chawla and J. Renesch (editors), 1995
The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, P. Senge, 1990
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, A. Kleiner, P. Senge, R. Ross, B. Smith and C. Roberts, 1994
“Building a Learning Organization” , D. Garvin, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1993
“Organizational Learning,” by C. M. Fiol and M. Lyles, Academy of Management Review, October 1985
“Understanding Organizations as Learning Systems,” by E. Nevis, A. DiBella and J. Gould, Sloan Management Review, Winter, 1995
“Three Cultures of Management: The Key to Organizational Learning,” Edgar H. Schein, Sloan Management Review, Fall, 1996
On Becoming a Servant Leader , R. Greenleaf, 1996
Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest , P. Block, 1993
The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations , by P. Senge, C. Roberts, R. Ross, G. Roth and B. Smith, 1999
“The Systems Thinker” (a newsletter) published by Pegasus Communications, 781-398-9700
“Leverage” (a newsletter) published by Pegasus Communications, 781-398-9700
When learning new concepts and ways of thinking, a picture can be worth a thousand words. When we look at how people learn new things, the graphical aspect of Systems Thinking helps us visually see how systems work and how we might be able to work through them in better ways. If you are not familiar with it, the term "Systems Thinking" was first associated with Jay Forrester from MIT in the 1940’s to refer to a different way of looking at problems and goals not as isolated events, but as parts of interrelated structures.
When we look at business and human endeavors as systems, we need to understand the complete picture, the interrelated variables, and the effects they have on each other. We cannot understand the whole of any system by studying the parts. For example, if you want to understand how a car works and you take it apart and study each of its parts, (tires, a drive shaft, a carburetor, transmission, etc.) you would have no clue as to how a car works. To understand an automobile, you must study the relationship of the parts and how they work together.
"Systems Thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools, developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively."
When I first began to learn about Systems Thinking, it seemed not only a foreign concept but a foreign language, as well. However, seeing a systems picture helped me to understand and internalize the nature of this thinking.
While Systems Thinking can be used to understand highly complex systems, it also can help us understand day-to-day issues. As an example, many of us would like to lose weight. We get on the scale one morning or try to zip up a favorite pair of pants and we are disgusted. So, we set a date (next Monday) to begin, and eat like crazy until that date. On the appointed day, we resolve to eat less and lose weight. Often, we have the low cal breakfast and perhaps an even lighter lunch than usual, but by 4:00 in the afternoon we are hungry, looking for that rich, filling and usually sweet snack to get us through to our healthy dinner. Even if we get through the first day or week, by the second week, we are feeling depressed, deprived, and ravenous!
What is the nature of the system in which we find ourselves? Let’s identify the variables in this system: unhappiness with weight, amount of food consumed, and degree of hunger. What is the relationship between these variables?
When I saw this picture, I understood the nature of Systems Thinking and how I could take an everyday problem like dieting and see the structure of the underlying system. I see how to apply one aspect of Systems Thinking.
When we have reoccurring issues in our lives or our organizations, can we identify the variables and draw the casual connections with each other
Another example might help. How many organizations try to solve expense structure problems with lay-offs? XYZ Co. finds themselves with costs that are too high. So, they solve the problem by laying off 10% of their work force. Costs might go down right away but the workload for the remaining workers increases dramatically. Those workers feel stressed and cannot get all the work done. As a result, the company hires outside contractors or brings in new workers to help reduce the workload.
What are the variables? Costs, numbers of workers, and workload. What does their relationship to each other look like?
A picture tells the story. And we wonder why we find ourselves in reoccurring systems? Systems Thinking is a wonderful tool for understanding the environments you might find yourself in, both personally and organizationally. It provides a visual tool for learning. It wasn’t until I saw the picture that I began to understand some of the critical elements of thinking systemically. A systems picture can indeed be worth a thousand words!
Victoria Saunders is principle at The Metanoic Group, a consulting firm located in Richmond, Virginia. She has also served as an adjunct professor for American University and Virginia Commonwealth University, teaching courses in Human Performance Improvement and Organizational Learning She can be reached at email@example.com.
 Senge, Peter M. (1990) The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.
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