System Thinking Example 1: The Automobile

In my previous post I discussed about what systems thinking is. However, systems thinking can best be understood by viewing real life phenomena and everyday issues through the systems lens. In the coming posts I will try to demonstrate systems thinking through examples I’ve learned along my studies.

Russell Ackoff’s automobile example

Russell Ackoff (1919-2009) was a pioneering organizational theorist and a systems thinker who has inspired me in many ways. In his days, Russell Ackoff would often demonstrate systems thinking with an example about building an automobile. The story would go something like this:

Suppose you’re building the best automobile in the world. You would go about it by first bringing each of all the car models in the world to one place. You would then hire the best automobile engineers and mechanics in the world and ask them to determine which of the cars has the best engine. If the engineers say that the Rolls-Royce has the best engine, you would pick the Rolls-Royce engine for your car. Similarly, you would ask your engineers to find out which of the cars has the best exhaust system and pick that for your future car. Using this method, you and your team would go through the necessary parts for building an automobile and in the end have a list of the best parts available in the world. You would then give the list to your engineers and mechanics and ask them to assemble the car. What do you think you will get?

The answer is obvious: you don’t even get an automobile! The parts won’t simply fit together. An engine from a Rolls-Royce won’t work well with an exhaust system from a Mercedes. The performance of the automobile is dependant on the interaction of its parts, not on the performance of the parts taken separately.

It’s extremely important to understand that the idea works the same whether we’re talking about building an automobile, governing a nation or running a company. This is relatively easy to understand with physical systems such as an automobile, but with more complex systems like cities it often gets more difficult.

The principle: A system is not the sum of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions.

The original example is at 5:57 in the below video. Enjoy!

Creative Commons Automobiles by Atli Harðarson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world. According to the systems point of view, the world is built around varying kinds of systems. How can this perspective help us view our problems in a different way and help us solve some of the most difficult issues of our time?

Imagine you are living in the suburb of a large city. You go daily to work by taking the bus, which takes a lot of time and forces you to wake up very early in the morning. After some consideration you decide to buy a car in order to free up time and to make the commute more tolerable. At the beginning you feel great: now you can sleep a little longer and there’s no more waiting in the bus stop! You also have more energy because of longer hours of sleep and more flexible timetable.

After a while though, you start to see the costs of owning the car. Gasoline prices are rising and the car needs maintenance, which is why you have to reduce your spending on other things. Some mornings there are traffic jams and every now and then you end up late from work. The increased costs and the unpredictable traffic both increase your stress levels and you feel some regrets about buying the car. It appears that the solution to the original problem only caused other issues!

When we approach problems in our daily lives, we usually assume that a given problem is the end result of some simple cause-effect relationship. This is because we are taught early in our lives how to use analytical thinking to solve issues. However, this kind of thinking has its limits. It assumes that every problem can be taken apart and that the parts are in linear cause-effect relationship. The problem is that not all issues fit into these criteria.

In the above example the long commute was seen as the problem to be solved. The cause of the problem appeared to be the bad bus connections, which was solved by buying a car. However, the car itself ended up being the cause of the second problem, which was higher costs and stress due to traffic.

Fortunately there is another way to approach problems that can bring new light to the above issue.

Systems thinking

”Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’.”

Senge, P. (2007). In his book The Fifth Discipline.

Systems thinking is a conceptual framework that sees the world as a system of interconnected wholes. Whereas in analytical thinking in order to understand the whole you take it into parts, in systems thinking you would instead try to understand how the parts are connected to each other. The interaction between the parts of the whole are not assumed to be based on simple cause-effect relationships. Furthermore, a systems thinker would pay close attention to how the whole itself is connected to its environment.

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that it achieves something”

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems.

Using systems thinking in the above long commute example, you would not try to solve the problem by buying a car, but instead you would try to understand the issue from a broader perspective. You would actually try to see yourself as part of a system that is formed by you, your home, your workplace and the modes of transportation available to you. From this point of view, if the problem is long hours of commute, by buying a car you are only optimizing parts of the system. Thus, when the basic structure of the system remains unchanged the problem only changes location. By optimizing parts you do not necessarily solve the issue, but only end up shifting it to other parts of the system.

From a systems perspective it is equally important to understand the relationship between the parts as it is to understand the functioning of each individual part. This realization has very important implications to our every day lives. In the commute example you could find other solutions by considering the relationship between your home and your workplace. What is the fundamental role of commute? Is it to move from place A to place B, or could we perhaps frame it differently? In this case the fundamental issue is about organizing work: in order to work, you have agreed to be at your desk when your employer asks you to. But could this be arranged in a different way? Perhaps you can work at home some days, or maybe you could work at a nearby café? If this is impossible, maybe you could move closer to your workplace in order to minimize commute time.

Another incredibly powerful example of this kind of thinking is understanding how an architect would plan a house. When planning a house an architect would probably first decide what and how many rooms will go into the house, and decide about the general outline of the building. Most importantly, the architect would plan each room in a way that would not compromise the overall performance of the whole! The architect understands that even if an individual room would look great and perform well, the room can’t stay if it makes the whole house worse.

In my blog I will explore and share resources about systems thinking. I will also talk about other related issues, such as complexity, chaos and sustainability, with the intention of learning and sharing what I’ve learned. These topics might seem abstract at first, but they have incredibly important implications to the lives of individuals, organizations and societies. Please join me in my quest to explore the interesting world of systems!

If you wish to learn more, here is a video about systems thinking that I have found useful, hope you’ll enjoy it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhbLNBqhQkc

References:

Senge, P. (2007). The Fifth Discipline. Random House, London. pp. 68.

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems. Chelsea Green publishing, Vermont. pp. 11.

Systems Thinking – Brief Introduction

Systems thinking has many definitions, but I like to think that it is simply about understanding parts, wholes and their relations. Systems thinking was developed after the second World War by numerous scholars coming from different fields, including biology, engineering and management.

I think systems thinking is easier to understand by first contrasting it to analytical thinking. Analytical problem solving begins by taking a whole into its constituent parts for further observation. For example, you would take an automobile into its parts and analyze the parts in order to understand the automobile. Using systems thinking, instead of taking the whole into parts, you would observe how the whole is connected to its surroundings. In the case of the automobile, you would try to understand the car in the context of the various transportation systems we are using today.

Systems thinking is not a discipline the same way e.g. biology or physics are, but a general way of approaching issues. It can be applied to almost any situation similar to how we use analytical thinking in problem solving. If you wish to learn more about systems thinking, I suggest you first read my post about what systems thinking is, and then read a few examples of systems thinking in order to gain further intuition.

Please do share your thoughts about systems thinking in the comments. Do you think it might be useful to you, or are you still a bit skeptical? Maybe you have been studying or practicing systems thinking and your views differ from mine? I am still a novice in this topic and I do appreciate it when someone questions my views. That way you help me learn more!