The big (panoramic) picture.

The big (panoramic) picture.

In Systems Thinking: Difficulties we focused on the dark side of systems thinking.  But, systems thinking is a powerful framework for change agents. There are two primary reasons systems thinking has a tremendous impact:

  • Understanding Context
  • Value Focus

Making changes to processes and activities that you are directly involved with and then demonstrating the impact of that change is (relatively) easy. Making a change that has a demonstrable impact on the products and services delivered by the larger organization and then proving it is . . . hard.  It would be impossible without an understanding of the big picture. We’ve defined a system as a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. Missing from the definition is an outcome, for most organizations that output is a product or service (or multiples).  Taking a systems thinking perspective allows change agents to generate an understanding of how raw materials are taken into the system, transformed and delivered, which provides the context any potential change.  Silos and departments can be transposed on the big picture to provide a map of the boundaries involved.  Mapping boundaries helps to develop an understanding of complexity and more importantly it helps when planning any change. Boundaries identify who needs to be involved and who needs to buy-into a change.  An understanding of the flow that work or product needs to take to reach the customer also provides information for identifying improvement opportunities. Changes to subsystems, steps or activities that are not on the path to delivery can’t impact products or services.  Value chain mapping would call the processes on the path to delivery ‘core processes’ and those not on the path ‘support’. Changes to support processes are important, generally for cost containment rather than to affect the product.  Having a systems thinking perspective ensures we know whether any opportunity has a chance at reaching our customers.

The second reason systems thinking is important is its focus on delivering value. Said differently, there is a focus on making a difference to the customers.  One of the more serious criticisms of many process improvement programs is that steps get optimized causing more problems (such as additional work-in-processes waiting for the next step).  The relentless focus of system thinking on what is delivered by the system helps to ensure that change opportunities are not just optimizations of individual steps that do not deliver an impact to the output of the systems. A second benefit to the focus on value is that the discussion of value and impact cuts through much of the resistance that boundaries can cause in organizations. Would you like to be the person that gets in the way of a change that delivers customer value . . . I think not.  More importantly than beating down resistance, organizational value provides a goal that helps builds bridges and that everyone in an organization can believe in.

Having a goal that everyone can rally around is critical when making any process improvement. Systems thinking provides a structure to see and consider the big picture while focusing on the one goal that most everyone in an organization can agree upon: value. I often use the metaphor of planting a flag on the top of a hill in a game of capture the flag to drive home the point of needing a goal. Systems thinking ensures that we plant the flag on the right hill.