Leverage These Guidelines to Use Systemic Thinking in Life and Business Decisions 18-03
In your life and business, you will discover and use systems.
When they are working, you pay little attention to them.
However, when the systems are not working, then you know it.
The bank machine is down. Someone inadvertently cuts the cable line into the suburb. The e-mail system at work is down because of a server upgrade. The LCD projector is not working just as you are about to start your presentation on ‘Systems in the Workplace.’
Systems, Systems, and More Systems
Systems are tools, techniques, and technologies people use to describe, explain, and make things work for themselves and/or others.
According to Wikipedia, "system" is an assemblage of inter-related elements comprising a unified whole. From the Latin and Greek, the term "system" means to combine, to set up, to place together.
A system typically consists of components (or elements) which are connected together in order to facilitate the flow of information, matter or energy. Examples include the finance, human resources and communication systems of an organization or the fire and police systems in communities. There is the solar system in which the earth moves in its orbit.
Systems are said to be open when the system has interactions with the external environment of the system. The thermostat on your office wall is an open system where the heat comes on when the thermostat senses the temperature of the room dropping.
Systems can be closed and have no ongoing interaction with the outside environment. The wind-up clock is an example. Without continuous winding, the clock runs its course and stops functioning.
Then there are dynamic systems like human beings that are open and closed. When people eat, they interact openly with the environment. If they decide not to eat, they close themselves to what is available.
Another dynamic example is government, which is a closed system when it seeks to maintain confidentiality. However, it is open when it seeks advice and accepts universal voter input and petitions.
When the term ‘thinking’ is coupled with ‘system,’ two important terms surface. They are systematic thinking and systemic thinking.
What is Systematic Thinking?
Systematic thinking studies the relationships among systems by seeing the parts of the whole. The use of the phrase ‘parts of the system’ is significant because this was the language of the time from the 1940s-1970s. Then with the realization of the impact of human systems, a new language was created where the term systemic thinking or systemics gained attention and use.
What is Systemic Thinking?
Systemic thinking studies the relationships among systems by seeing the wholes of the whole. It was no longer helpful to call people parts of a system because each person was a whole that influenced the systems and vice versa. Just observe how people can influence the work system in which you work. They can block the flow of work and affect your work.
Systemic thinking is an approach to learning, problem solving, and appreciative inquiry that first searches out an understanding of how all the complex elements of a system interrelate. It involves totally re-examining the images, assumptions, and communications that people use for decision making. It is like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing everything from a much different perspective.
Systemic thinking entails the belief that a living system as a single purposeful entity (an individual, a team, an organization, a society or global economy) is composed of a network of relationships between component wholes rather than as an entity composed of a collection of independently functioning parts.
With these definitions in mind, and from learning taken from a 30+ years consulting practice, here are 3 sets of guidelines or checklists for working with systems.
One list helps frame the start-up of a system.
The next frames the system as it operates.
The third frames what actions are necessary in closing the system.
Systemic Thinking: Start-up
- Determine what needs to be systematized
- Identify system parameters including the supra-system(s) (the system is within a higher system) in which the system interacts
- Identify outcome(s) of the system
- Determine who is involved in the system
- Assign accountability and responsibility to people involved with the system
- Outline process(es) [or sub-systems] of the system
- Identify outcome(s) for each of the process steps
- Anticipate potential squeeze and block points in the system
- Identify criteria that signal the system is working
- Determine if it is green to go
Systemic Thinking: In progress
- Determine what system is to be reviewed
- Identify system parameters including the influence of the supra-system(s) that embodies the system
- Identify outcome(s) of the system
- Review outcome(s) of the system over a specified time
- Review performance of those who are accountable and responsible for the system
- Review process steps of the system
- Identify outcome(s) of each process step
- Review burr points in and between the process steps
- Identify criteria that signal the system is operational
- Determine if the system will continue as is, if you will stop doing certain things, and/or start doing certain things
Systemic Thinking: Wrapping up
- Determine what system is to be shut down
- Assess system parameters including the affect the system had on the supra-system(s)
- Identify reasons for closing the system
- Validate outcome(s) of the system to learn what happened
- Measure performance of those who worked with the system
- Evaluate process steps of the system
- Validate outcome(s) of each process step
- Review burr points in and between the process steps, that were cleared and/or those that were not
- Consider criteria that signal the system operated as intended
- Determine what is next for the system
As you work with systems, what sage advice can you suggest to others?
Stay ever vigilant to the systems that you work within,
seeking in all ways to help them to run smoothly.
In what you do, be not the burr!
You have a click device in your hand that could suspend time (and yes, there is a movie premised on this subject).
It is Friday … and the system you are working on is not working for you and probably many others. Remember, you can choose any system.
How about the “in and out” box of your e-mail program, the weekly meetings with your staff, the review system your supervisors are using to celebrate their staff performances or the coffee cup usage in the lunch room? The list goes on.
Now … with that system in mind, apply the ‘in progress’ list outlined above. In applying this checklist you are looking to improve the system. Do not skimp on your thinking. Most of all, look to see the role people play in the system. Look at the relationships within the system as a whole and within the processes of the system. Look at what is happening between systems. Look at what is happening between processes. Take out your flashlight and illuminate what is happening and be open to surprise.
Often, tough decisions are needed. That is, you take on the system and its members, leave the system, and/or close the system down. However, make sure the decision is responsive rather than reactive. Some systems are great; they simply need a tweak. Remember, human relational systems can be nudged; they cannot be directed.
To Work Well Together involves systemic thinking!
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Business Decisions 18-03
Edited version from 2006