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Systems Thinking–More than the sum of its’ parts

When Jamie Flinchbaugh and I founded the Lean Learning Center we focused on 4 primary principles of lean: practical problem solving, waste elimination, standardization, and systems (process) thinking. Problem solving, waste elimination and standardization are well understood and widely accepted practices in the lean community and understandably are some of the earliest practices implemented in a lean deployment.  However, after 30 years of consulting and engaging with dozens of companies, I’m convinced that systems thinking is not nearly as vigorously promoted and practiced. This confuses me because I believe that systems thinking is the foundation principle for the effective and efficient application of practically every lean practice.

The following description is my attempt to express the “value” of Systems Thinking. I firmly believe that understanding the value/benefits of Systems Thinking is important because I’m convinced that individual and companies will not adopt what they do not value.

Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving, continuous improvement and decision-making that focuses on understanding how different components (activities, connections, flows, outputs) of a system interact and influence each other. It recognizes that a system is more than the sum of its parts with a focus of uncovering the underlying patterns, relationships, and feedback loops that shape the behavior of the system as a whole.

The value of Systems Thinking can be expressed by the multiple benefits to individuals and organizations.

  • Comprehensive Understanding: Systems thinking helps you see the big picture. It encourages you to look beyond individual components and consider the relationships and interactions between them. This leads to a more comprehensive understanding of how different parts of a system influence each other.
  • Improved Problem Solving: By understanding the underlying dynamics and interactions within a system, you can identify the root causes of problems rather than just addressing symptoms. This enables more effective problem-solving strategies that target underlying issues, leading to more effective and sustainable solutions.
  • Anticipating Consequences: Systems thinking helps you anticipate the potential consequences of actions taken within a system. By understanding how changes in one part of the system can impact other parts, you can make more informed decisions and avoid unintended negative outcomes. With systems thinking, employees can foresee potential unintended consequences of their actions. This foresight enables them to adjust their plans and strategies, minimizing negative impacts on the system. When changes are made in a system without considering the broader context, unintended consequences can arise. Systems thinking helps identify potential side effects and mitigate them before they become problematic.
  • Reduced Silo/Functional Mentality: Silo mentality where different departments, functions or teams operate in isolation, can hinder organizational progress. Systems thinking helps break down these silos by emphasizing the interconnectedness of various functions, promoting information sharing, and fostering a more cohesive work environment. A “different set of eyes” is often the catalyst for meaningful engagement and contribution.
  • Improved Communication: Systems thinking provides a common language and framework for discussing complex issues. It allows individuals from different backgrounds to communicate more effectively and share insights using a shared understanding of system dynamics.
  • Promotes Collaboration: Systems thinking encourages collaboration and communication among employees from different departments or disciplines. It promotes cross-functional understanding and cooperation, leading to more effective teamwork and the ability to address complex challenges that require input from multiple perspectives.
  • Long-Term Focus: Rather than focusing solely on short-term gains, systems thinking promotes considering the long-term consequences of decisions. This can lead to more sustainable and responsible decision-making. Systems thinking encourages employees to consider long-term consequences rather than just short-term gains. This helps organizations avoid decisions that might yield immediate benefits but could have negative repercussions down the line.
  • Innovation: Systems thinking encourages thinking outside the box and exploring unconventional solutions. By considering the system, you can uncover innovative approaches that might not be apparent when focusing solely on individual components. By understanding how different elements of a system interact, employees can identify opportunities for innovation. They can find ways to improve processes, optimize resource utilization, and develop creative solutions that take advantage of the system’s dynamics.
  • Continuous Learning: Systems thinking fosters a mindset of continuous learning and improvement. As you gain a deeper understanding of how systems operate, you can refine your mental models and adapt your strategies accordingly.
  • Decision Making: Systems thinking equips employees with the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and environments. They can analyze how changes in one part of the system might affect others, allowing them to make informed adjustments and mitigate potential negative consequences. This broader perspective enables employees to make better-informed decisions and anticipate the potential impact of their actions on the entire system.
  • Critical Thinking: Employees with systems thinking skills develop stronger critical thinking abilities. They can analyze complex situations, identify patterns, and evaluate cause-and-effect relationships, which leads to more thorough and thoughtful decision-making.
  • Leadership Skills: Systems thinking is a valuable skill for leaders and managers. It helps them guide their teams with a common and comprehensive understanding of organizational dynamics, anticipated challenges, and making decisions that align with the organization’s long-term objectives.

Value Stream Mapping, process mapping, SIPOC and direct observation are just a few of the tools that translate Systems Thinking into action.

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