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 the components. 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 the parts of a car work together. See What if Russ Ackoff Gave a TED Talk for his discussion that inspired this.)
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@Teams will directly discuss how to improve 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 the 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.