Systems Thinking

Machines, organizations, and communities include and are themselves part of systems.  Russell L. Ackoff a pioneer in systems thinking defined a system not as a sum of its parts but as the product of its interactions of those parts.

".. the essential properties that define any system are the properties of the whole which none of the parts have."

The example he gives is that of a car.  The essential property of car is to take us from one place to another.  This is something that only a car as a whole can do.  The engine by itself cannot do this. Neither can the wheels, the seats, the frame, and so on.

Ackoff continues:

"In systems thinking, increases in understanding are believed to be obtainable by expanding the systems to be understood, not by reducing them to their elements. Understanding proceeds from the whole to its parts, not from the parts to the whole as knowledge does."

A system is a whole which is defined by its function in a larger system of which it's a part. For a system to perform its function it has essential parts:

  • Essential parts are necessary for the system to perform its function but not sufficient

  • Implies that an essential property of a system is that it can not be divided into independent parts.

  • Its properties derive out of the interaction of its parts and not the actions of its parts taken separately.

When you apply analysis (reductionism) to a system you take it apart and it loses all its essential properties, and so do the parts.  This gives you knowledge (know how) on how the part works but not what they are for. To understand what parts are for you need synthesis (holism) which considers the role the part has with the whole.

Why is this important and what has this to do with quality, safety, environmental and regulatory objectives?

The answer is that when it comes to management systems we often take a reductionist approach to implementation.  We divide systems into constituent parts and focus our implementation and improvement at the component level.  This according to Ackoff is necessary, but not sufficient for the system to perform.

We only need to look at recent discussions with respect to safety to understand that the problem with performance is not only the performance of the parts themselves, but rather failures in the links (i.e. dependencies) the parts have with each other.  Todd Conklin (Senior Advisor to the Associate Director, at Los Alamos National Laboratory) calls this "between and among" the nodes.  To solve these problems you cannot optimize the system by optimizing the parts making each one better.  You must consider the system as a whole -- you must consider dependencies.

However, this is not how most compliance systems are implemented and improved.  Instead, the parts of systems are implemented in silos that seldom or if ever communicate with each other.  Coordination and governance is also often lacking to properly establish purpose, goals, and objectives for the system.

In practice, optimization mostly happens at the nodes and not the dependencies.  It is this lack of systems attention that contributes to poor performance.  No wonder we often hear of companies who have implemented all the "parts" of a particular management system an yet fail to receive any of the benefits from doing so.  For them it has only been a cost without any return.

However, by applying Systems Thinking you can achieve a better outcome. 

"One can survive without understanding, but not thrive. Without understanding one cannot control causes; only treat effect, suppress symptoms. With understanding one can design and create the future ... people in an age of accelerating change, increasing uncertainty, and growing complexity often respond by acquiring more information and knowledge, but not understanding." -- Russell Ackoff.

For those looking for a deeper dive the following video (90 minutes) provides an excellent survey of systems thinking by Russell L. Ackoff a pioneer in the area of systems improvement working along side others such as W. Edward Deming.

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