Clouds at dawn

Clouds are a reflection of a system.

I am revisiting a number of essays on continuous improvement.  Today a re-edited essay from 2011.

Have you ever researched, prototyped, piloted, and implemented changes to processes only to find that nothing happens? The second or third time that happens strongly suggests that optimizing steps within a system doesn’t always translate into better overall performance. The problem is that most process improvements are targeted at steps within processes rather than the system as a whole. Adjusting our point of view through Systems Thinking takes us down a more holistic path. Systems Thinking is a means of understanding systems that emphasizes the relationships of the system to the entire environment, rather than individual steps.  Systems Thinking is based on a field of study known as system dynamics. 

Before we delve into describing Systems Thinking we need to define a system.  What is a system?  One definition is that a system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. Other definitions included one supplied by Henrick Martensson on Twitter from Russel Ackoff: “A system is an entity which is composed of at least two elements and a relation that holds between each of its elements and at least one other element in the set. Each of a system’s elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. Furthermore, no subset of elements is unrelated to any other subset.” @Asplake, also on Twitter, supplied another definition from @snowded: “A system is any network that has coherence.” A critical core of all these definitions is that a system is a number of related components that interact to generate an outcome. I would also suggest that implicit to each of the definitions is that systems operate within a larger ecology which provides feedback and guidance.

There are several defining characteristics of a system that provide a foundation for Systems Thinking. The characteristics include:

  • Every system has a purpose and operates within a larger system.

Example: A credit card billing system does not make sense if there is no mechanism for using the card, authorizing charges, and recording transactions. 

  • All of a system’s parts must be present for the system to carry out its purpose. In other words, if you removed any of the components, the system would fail to meet its purpose.

Example: A billing system without the ability to create a bill is . . . not done.

  • A system’s components have a specific order.

Example: There is a reason they print the MasterCard bill at the end or near the end of the billing process.

  • Systems interact with their environment and generate feedback.

Example: Credit card billing systems interact with the calendar, interest rates and many operational components to operate effectively.

  • Feedback provides a mechanism to make adjustments.

Example: The number of customers in a specific billing cycle is typically adjusted based on load. If everyone cycled on the last day of the month, processing would never complete on that day. Load balancing is a feedback mechanism.

Systems Thinking is an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes viewing problems as the output of the whole process including the environment the system operates within.

Systems Thinking capitalizes on the five characteristics of systems identified above to generate a framework for analysis and action. Feedback from both inside and outside the system are control mechanisms that ensure the system performs as expected. The impact of a change to an individual component will be affected by the performance of the components that follow. Systems that ignore feedback will lose environmental context and go out of control over time. Systems Thinking focuses on the whole rather than on the parts; on understanding the system’s structure and behavior in order to understand performance and the potential for improvement.