Systems Thinking
April 21, 2012 5:10 PM   Subscribe

"Systems thinking (PDF) is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole...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." -Wikipedia

Some notable people in the field of systems thinking include W. Edwards Deming (Previously on Ed Deming), who used his approach to build the auto industry in Japan from basically nothing, and with respect to systems wrote in his book The New Economics:
"What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment. (We are of course talking here about a man-made system.)"
He also wrote how many economies are living off the "fat" of non-renewable resources.

There is Peter Senge, writer of the book "The Fifth Discipline", "a senior lecturer at the System Dynamics Group at MIT Sloan School of Management, and co-faculty at the New England Complex Systems Institute."

Lastly there is Donella Meadows, author of the very accessible book "Thinking in Systems", which includes discussion of system archetypes (PDF) such as the Limits of Growth.
posted by JoeXIII007 (25 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, I was a systems analyst. Idealism is nice. Working as a systems analyst tends not to be.
posted by Decani at 5:16 PM on April 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm currently studying systems thinking and cybernetics in the context of business management. It's an incredibly interesting field but I keep getting this feeling that it's a fad whose time has passed. The tools of the trade, e.g. viable systems model or action workflow, can be very abstract and generic and don't offer any more value compared to more traditional tools. Would love to be proven wrong, though.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:25 PM on April 21, 2012

I find it so hard to believe that "The idea of including the big picture in our thought processes and problem solving approaches started in the 1960s.." and also that it's a fad. I just can't wrap my brain around those ideas.
posted by bleep at 5:41 PM on April 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

I took a class on systems engineering last semester. I could barely understand the professor (an unfortunate common occurrence in Engineering departments) and am poor with accents, so I felt I learned very little. Perhaps this will help fill in the gaps.
posted by Defenestrator at 5:43 PM on April 21, 2012

bleep, it's the implementations (e.g. cybernetics) of the idea (how to create a successful company) that I think are fads. All frameworks/models/methods in business management approach the same eternal business problems but in different ways. Also, systems thinking is more than getting the big picture. Wikipedia explains it fairly well.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:52 PM on April 21, 2012

12 Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, by Donella Meadows.

A short read, worth it.
posted by natteringnabob at 5:52 PM on April 21, 2012 [11 favorites]

Previous discussion of Systems thinking.
posted by euphorb at 5:54 PM on April 21, 2012

Here's to a systems theory course in my third year of Computer Science with Bertalanffy's “General Systems Theory” as the text; my only takeaway from it at the time was that the (elderly) lecturer had, to quote Whitnail & I, done more drugs than I'd had hot dinners.
posted by nfg at 6:08 PM on April 21, 2012

One of the problem with systems thinking is the fact that a lot of people who want to jump on the new buzzword bandwagon don't get the fundamental difference between something that is complex with something that is merely complicated.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:49 PM on April 21, 2012 [10 favorites]

I read the articles, I just don't get how it's new or remarkable or something you wouldn't want to do.
posted by bleep at 7:33 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

From Leverage Points: "although people deeply involved in a system often know intuitively where to find leverage points, more often than not they push the change in the wrong direction."

From Black Swan:
“It is the same logic reversal we saw earlier with the value of what we don’t know; everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but few reward acts of prevention.”
posted by hank at 7:48 PM on April 21, 2012

My all time favorite systems theorist is Robert McNamara. Watch Fog of War. It is a great great story. It ain't a happy one.
posted by bukvich at 8:12 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The problem boils down to complexity. Yes, parts are moving parts of complicated wholes (systems). Yes, we can look at the whole system, instead of 'just' the parts. But if the whole system is really fucking complicated, then you are still going to be looking at a huge mess.

Meanwhile the amount of variation in "systems" is going to necessarily be way more than the amount of variation in a class of parts, or events, or whatever. Which means that coming up with a general set of laws about systems, in the abstract is going to be really hard to do with any predictive power or applicability.

A lot of great things came out of the cybernetics movement. Operations research techniques, management techniques, advances in psychology through cognitive science, robotics advances, and steps forward in AI and machine learning all owe a lot to that kind of thinking. A lot of them are now so mainstream in their own fields that we don't bother to label them as 'cybernetics'. Because as a unified discipline, it feel apart. The terrain was just too crazy to map (though it didn't hurt trying)
posted by sbenthall at 9:27 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I respect and admire Charles Owen's thinking on systems design. There used to be a publication list of his works but they seem to have badly redesigned the website again.
posted by infini at 11:08 PM on April 21, 2012

Thank you JoeXIII007 and Natteringbob (and hank) for the Donella Meadows links. I think you may have just provided me with some of the key frames I need to start changing some things that desperately need changing.
posted by Ahab at 1:56 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ahab, thank you for bringing this to my notice

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get,” at a gut level, the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into not-knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.
posted by infini at 3:03 AM on April 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Excerpts from Systemantics: How Systems Work And Especially How They Fail (1975).
posted by user92371 at 8:14 AM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

sbenthall: But if the whole system is really fucking complicated, then you are still going to be looking at a huge mess.

Sort of. Nevertheless, if you have no experience looking at designed systems and trying to understand how they function, you have little chance of understanding natural systems, the ones we live inside. I'd argue that starting with Copernicus, (maybe the Greeks, I don't know...) people are using their understanding of built and designed systems to theorize about how larger systems work. Without a framework for some larger perspective, this kind of thinking is much more difficult. Look at Babbage's difference engine, for example: it's a thing that, at the time of its creation, is technically impossible to build, but represents an evolutionary leap from previous machines simply because people are able to think about much more complex systems. And this process continues (I'm aware of the problem of idealizing these connections...): after Babbage, Darwin and Kropotkin (only because I'm more interested in how we think about ecosystems than cybernetics).

And on preview, what infini said.
posted by sneebler at 10:41 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

sneebler, I'd be interested to hear more about the connections you see between Babbage, Darwin, and Kropotkin. (I respect your caveat)
posted by sbenthall at 5:22 PM on April 22, 2012

Let me ask this - systems thinking implies large, complex systems, which are usually run by committee (corporations, complex technical implementations). Is it feasible that systems thinking is really only practical for a small group, and the dichotomy is that the unit under consideration often involves so many people it's difficult to communicate the findings?

In other words, the tool is only effective when wielded by a few, but the work those few are capable of doing is often not enough to significantly change the system?
posted by lon_star at 10:01 AM on April 24, 2012

And that, while I am going on and on, is that the groups who are capable of analyzing the systems and reporting findings/recommendations are not the groups who can drive change, and the groups who can drive change find the results of systems thinking difficult/impossible to implement? (Unit test all the things! Make people get along! Hire a guy who tells everyone except me what to do!) etc, etc, etc...
posted by lon_star at 10:03 AM on April 24, 2012

And that, while I am going on and on, is that the groups who are capable of analyzing the systems and reporting findings/recommendations are not the groups who can drive change, and the groups who can drive change find the results of systems thinking difficult/impossible to implement?

I'm looking at this challenge as being part of the original design problem. Once the problem areas to be tweaked are identified, and if they involve changes in organization behaviour in addition to inanimate parts of the system, can those changes be framed in a manner that lower the barriers to adoption?
posted by infini at 10:47 PM on April 24, 2012

And so the issue here is that systems thinking is but one step in the actual activity going on here - organizational change. This is sort of a conceptual philosophy around kind of a RUP-(fill in your pet methodology here) model for organizations, and like RUP/your pet philosophy, it turns out that making plans is kind of the easy part.

I'm sure someone has already coined the phrase BUML (Business UML) - if not, dibs.
posted by lon_star at 8:07 AM on April 25, 2012

systems thinking is but one step in the actual activity going on here - organizational change.

Yes and no.

If I take the example of an SME offering a product to consumers in a market where organizational change may be required in order to increase sales (or whatnot) then I need to look at the whole [organization + product/offering + operating environment + consumers + channels + mktg + etc] as a system first, in order to diagnose what needs tweaking and where. Some tweaks might be in distribution (Pareto the retail outlets), some in marketing (where's the user manual?) and some might be operational (what are you incentivizing?) requiring behaviour change but I cannot see any activity that would come prior to mapping the entire landscape out in order to diagnose the problem areas.
posted by infini at 8:44 AM on April 25, 2012

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