Are you a systems thinker?

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.

A few decades before The Big Bang Theory introduced television audiences to fictional theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper, with guest appearances by Stephen Hawking, astronomer Carl Sagan was one of the most well-known non-fictional US physicists.   Amongst Sagan’s research interests was the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, including the odds of finding it amongst the planets surrounding his estimated “billions upon billions of stars.”  Sagan was also known to have once offered his advice to chefs, specifically on how to prepare an apple pie.  “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” he offered, “You must first invent the universe.”   With a similar regard for seeing systems, the 19th century Scottish-American conservationist John Muir once reflected, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”   Such wide views surely qualify Sagan and Muir as systems thinkers, where a system, to borrow from organizational theorist Russell Ackoff, “is more than the sum of its parts, an indivisible whole.   It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart.    The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may be part of a larger system.”

An apple pie, like an automobile or a football club, can be taken apart, but, to do so, one is left with disconnected components, not quite the same as an after-dinner sweet.  Whether collecting a list of ingredients for baking, or preparing for holiday travel, each element in a plan is eventually joined to the other elements to achieve the successful output of the system.   In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, physician Atul Gawande offers his readers to great advantage.   We are pragmatists and have things to do besides construct lists with infinite detail. By way of example, consider the response of our then 7-year old son to the question of how to prepare his favorite lunch, a grilled cheese sandwich. “Easy”, he said, “you only need three things – bread, butter, and cheese.” This is a very practical list and one that would match the responses of a fair number of readers.  But, one might ask, what about the rest of the universe to which these three things are hitched?   Well, of course, it depends on our starting point. Given the initial condition of a ready supply of cheese, butter, and bread, plus a hot frying pan, this is all one would need.   Given the “10 foot view” of “bread, butter, and cheese”, would any of us be regarded as a systems thinker in comparison to Sagan and Muir?

Using a favorite example for constructing a checklist, I recently asked six audiences of college students to list at least five things they need to wash a table, with the subject table in another room.   In borrowing an illustration from Dr. Deming, responses in each session included water, soap, a bucket, a sponge, a towel to dry it, and someone to do the work.    Similar to “bread, butter, and cheese to make a grilled cheese sandwich,” this is a very practical list, regarding preparation of the ingredients.   Typically missing from the “List 5 things needed to wash a table” list is consideration of the eventual use of the table, perhaps for dining, arts and crafts, or playing cards.

Given these anecdotes from Carl Sagan, John Muir, and our son, what does it mean to be a systems thinker?   To think of the big picture?   If so, how big?   One light year?  Two?   Perhaps we are all systems thinkers and we would be better served to shift our focus from asking “Who is a systems thinker?,” perhaps implying some of us are and others are not, to asking “How big a system should we think about?” and “Why was this size chosen?”

Simply put, what is the boundary of the system in question and why was this size chosen?  Both questions offer insights on thinking patterns that are of potential interest when systemic solutions are needed.   To borrow from Dr. Deming, “The boundary of the system……may be drawn around a single company, or around an industry, or as in Japan in 1950, the whole country.   The bigger the coverage, the bigger be the possible benefits, but the more difficult to manage,   The aim must include plans for the future.”

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