Systems Thinking – A Beginner’s Quest

Cartoon-Hole in the boat

I have been aware of this term ‘Systems’ for a little over eight years now. My graduating college has been offering a Masters program in ‘Engineering Systems’ for a very long time. Without much diligence or delibration, the word continued to represent something complex and to be honest, unnecessary.

It was only recently, that I was exposed to the immense transformational attributes and limitless possibilities of ‘Systems Thinking’, in matters that concerns our everyday living.

The ideas that Systems thinking propogates are not far fetched. In fact, it potentially touches and influence everything around us. The corporate lives we lead or the relationships we live in, could just be the examples of the fields where systems thinking can contribute.

Consider this,

For most of us the scenario in the illustration above, will appear familiar. An individual is happy living at his end of the boat, feeling content the hole that is drowning the shipis not on his end!

In our everday lives, it is not infrequent to come across people giving more importance and attention to the ‘parts’ that they alone are concerned with, while not realising that their ‘part’ is indeed just a part of a larger system. The perils of failing to adopt a ‘systems view’ in this case are obvious. The boat will sink, inevitably.

A conventional definition would state, “Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things”

‘Systems Thinking’ vs ‘Analysis’

Our traditional education system and methods of scintific enquiry are both biased towards conventional approach of problem solving, ’Analysis’.

By definition, ‘analysis’ is the separation of an intellectual or material whole into its constituent parts for individual study. In this sense and spirit, ‘Systems thinking’ is in sharp contrast and possibly the opposite of Analysis.

While analysis favours, breaking down a whole into fundamental parts for study or identifying the root cause of a problem, ‘Systems thinking’ proposes study of parts not in isolation but in seamless interconnectedness with others and with the whole. ‘Systems thinking’ propogates that the whole is not merely the sum of parts, but much more.

Systems thinking works by expanding its view to take into account larger and larger number of interactions as an issue is being studied. This results in sometimes strikingly different conclusions than those returned by traditional forms of analysis.

Let me try to illustrate the difference in approach with an example. Let us consider a scenario where an insect is eating up and damaging the crops. The traditional analytical response to this seemingly simple problem would be to spray the crop with a pesticide designed to kill the insect.

The conventional insecticides have a limited effectiveness, besides they cause irreversible damage through water and soil pollution. Let us for a moment assume a perfect pesticide that kills the targeted insect without causing much side effects on air, water or soil. Have we addressed the problem in hand?

 There is no doubt, that such a spray would partially and temporarily improve the condition of the crop and reduce damage. Unfortunately, this is only a part of the whole. What happens is is in the following years the problem of the crop damage gets worse and the pesticide that formally seemd to work, is not effective any more.

This is because the insect eating the crops initially, was controlling the population of another insect, either by preying on it or competining with it. When the pesticides kills the insects that were eating the crops, it eliminates the control that those insects were applying on population of the other insects. This leads to the population of these other insects to explode, causing continued and more severe damage than the insects killed by the pesticide.

Our analytical approach sorted the problem in shorter run, but indeed aggravated in the longer frame of reference. With this picture in mind, now consider an alternate method known as ‘Integrated Pest Management’, that controls the insects eating the crop by introducing more of its predators in the area. This approach has proven to be effective by MIT, the National Academy of Sciences and others.

In the process, we can eliminate running the risk of soil and water pollution and toxication of our edibles in the long run.

In conclusion, the drive behind this article was to do my bit in propogating this unique approach while increasing its reach and usefullnes. ’MyShareCafe’ is intended to provide a platform where like minded individuals express and share there views, doubts or concerns about the systems view of the world around us.

While I do not claim authority of any sort on the subject, I would be happy to retain the tag of beginner or seeker.  It will be of great pleasure to find your participation and interest. Follow this blog, share your views, express your feedback or bring in new topics.

We can together turn this into a platform for great learning, through sharing.

Looking forward to hear from you.

7 Responses to Systems Thinking – A Beginner’s Quest

  1. soami das says:

    indeed,wants to be updated with systems thinking for finding a complete solutions to a problem

  2. Dr. Premjit Singh says:

    Of course, the population of the non-targets pests may swell up and adversally affect the crop, but in my opinion the following is a more common cause of resistance break down:
    The resistance in the target pest often develops due to repeated use of site-specific pesticides. On this very account the site-specific pesticides are normally applied in alternation/combination with the pesticides that are broadspectrum in nature. This technique helps to prolong the useful life of the molecules/pesticides that are highly prone to the resistance development problem.

  3. Dr. Premjit Singh says:

    In my previous reply of Sept 15, 2010, (para 1) “non-targets” may be read as “non-target” and “resistance break down” as “resistance build-up”, please.

  4. soami das says:

    Dear Abhinav,
    Can you suggest any methodology through which one can arrive to find a solution of a
    problem and which does not occur again. Is it a close to quality circles propogated by Ja
    panese?

  5. Mainak says:

    I have been reading about design thinking as an approach to solving problems. Apparently design thinking encompasses business/service/process/experience design.

    I always thought systems and design thinking were synonyms when this post urged me to search for more…here’s an interesting critique – http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/fred-collopy/manage-designing/lessons-learned-why-failure-systems-thinking-should-inform-future

    This article (the above link) describes the failure of systems thinking, the futility of design thinking and the way forward.

  6. hwl says:

    Verily. The separatist / individualistic approach is indeed the rootcause of failure and suffering in this world… and regretably we are socialized to glorify the individualistic paradigm.

    “The Net of Indra is a profound and subtle metaphor for the structure of reality. Imagine a vast net; at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.” from The Enlightened Mind, by Stephen Mitchell.

    Imagine the complexity if the jewels are irregular in shape and have varying degrees of reflectivity, and that their shape and reflectivity are changing with time. What a complicated world are we living in?

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