This is a chapter from Amplio Development: The Path to Effective Lean-Agile Teams

“Today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions.’” 5th Discipline, Peter Senge.

Systems thinking is the foundation of Flow, Lean, and the Theory of Constraints. The essence of systems thinking is that a system is not merely the sum of its components but rather reflects the relationship between them. For example, a car is not merely a collection of tires, an engine, transmission, etc., on a chassis but rather the relationship between these.

Consider taking the best parts of the best cars and putting them together. You wouldn’t have a car – you’d have a pile of junk—car-ness results from how car parts work together.

There are a few other critical concepts involved here. A change to one part of a system can affect other parts. But not just one on one. It can affect how other parts of the system affect even other parts.  Sometimes these interactions are clear. Sometimes they are not. While we can understand these interactions with cars, in other systems, we cannot. We call these complex interactions. The presence of these interactions is why many systems are complex. It is often impossible to tell what change one aspect of a system will have with all the interrelationships present.

Systems can be thought of as a combination of known, well-defined relationships and those that involve complex interactions.  Amplio Development will discuss improving knowledge work by attending to the known, well-defined relationships. It will deal with the complex interactions by showing how quick feedback cycles can mitigate challenges arising from non-linear events during development. Non-linear events are when a small action results in a significant impact. The “straw that broke the camel’s back” is an iconic example. While we often hear of disasters occurring due to complexity, we have more control over what is happening in knowledge work. This enables us to decouple the effect of complex events and avoid disaster or wasted effort.

A very salient aspect of systems thinking is that the system people are in causes almost all the errors and waste. It’s easy to attribute bad behavior to individuals, but it’s more likely that the system they are in is causing the problems.

An important distinction

Creating new products is an emergent process. It requires adaptation, and we must acknowledge the lack of predictability. But this does not mean that our work methods can’t be well-defined. 

Essential Lessons of Systems Thinking:

  • Systems are more about the relationships between their components than the components themselves
  • Systems are comprised of other systems and interact with systems outside of themselves
  • Local changes to a system cause global, sometimes unpredictable, side effects.
  • Most of the challenges we encounter are due to our system.

Systems thinking in knowledge work.

In systems thinking, we must look at all aspects of knowledge work. This means we look at the people, the customers, the other stakeholders, management, and the workflow. Everything.  One aspect is not more important than the other because all of these are intertwined. This has often been ignored in the Agile community with its focus on people. People are, of course, critical. But the system within which people work affects their behavior. In Amplio, it may appear that we are over-emphasizing production mechanics. But Amplio believes a balance between all these factors must be achieved. Any failure in one will likely lower the effectiveness of the system.


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