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.

 

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