Question: I have an organizational situation that I need to address and I’m not sure how to go about it. I’ve been hearing a lot about something called systems thinking and I’m interested in understanding what it is and how I benefit from it addressing the situation at hand. Your thoughts on how to pursue this would be greatly appreciated.
This question was posted in a LinkedIn group and we would like to share our reply.
An organization IS a system
An organization is a whole system, and systems thinking helps you see, understand and act on that for better results. The alternative is to see your organization as ‘bits and pieces’ instead of as a whole entity. This is a very partial understanding and leads to unnecessary conflicts as well as the sub optimization of resources and output (see How Can We Optimize Resources and Processes?). As W. Edwards Deming defines it, a system us a network of interdependent components that work together to accomplish the aim of the system.
How do you ‘see’ the system?
How do you ‘see’ your organization as a system? By mapping out all the processes and interdependencies. This allows you not only to continuously improve your processes, but also to identify a strategic constraint, or leverage point in the system. Every system has a constraint. You may not be aware of it, but it is affecting the system’s ability to perform. When you identify, design and manage processes with the constraint in mind, you can dramatically increase performance of the whole organization (see What is a Systemic Organization?).
Traditional hierarchies miss opportunities
Why would you want your organization to think as a system? When organizations act as traditional hierarchies with silos, or as ‘bits and pieces’, they consistently miss the opportunity to foster productive and collaborative behaviour among their people. There are all kinds of solutions and innovations that can be arrived at with the intuition already present in an organization. It just needs to be triggered and nurtured. (see Hierarchy vs. FLow: How Can We Exert Control in Organizations?)
Tools for organizations
We hope this helps somewhat in understanding why systems thinking is not just useful but crucial for organizations to continuously improve and evolve. There are very robust tools for all of the things described above that have been tested for a couple of decades. They come from the Theory of Constraints and W. Edwards Deming’s approach to Quality. Our website is dedicated to exploring these systemic approaches. (see What Are the Thinking Process Tools?)
(‘Whole is greater than sum of parts’ t-shirt image from http://randomobjects.net)
Sign up to our blog here and shift your thinking towards broader, systemic possibilities for yourself and your organization. Intelligent Management provides education and training on W. Edwards Deming’s management philosophy and the Theory of Constraints (Decalogue methodology) in North America and Europe.
About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management and author of the business novel+ website The Human Constraint , so far purchased in 21 countries around the globe. This downloadable novel uses narrative to look at how the Deming approach and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore, founder, and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York.