Systems thinking examples

What can we learn from Finnish anarchists?

The clashes between anarchists and the police during the Finnish independence day have recently been a hot topic of discussion in Finland. A group of anarchists had started a riot on the evening of independence day, which resulted in destroyed public and private property. Destroying small companies’ property has especially been the subject of public outrage. But is there something we can learn from the anarchists?

It is very difficult to understand what the anarchists tried to achieve by breaking other people’s property. One way to look at it is that by breaking stuff the anarchists try to draw attention to issues in our society. What the anarchists probably don’t understand is that the violent actions themselves easily become the center of attention instead of the anarchists’ actual message.

However, shunning the anarchists helps no one either. Pointing fingers and demonizing the rioters only feeds our own egos and makes us feel superior. The reason we make the anarchists the bad guys is because it’s the usual knee-jerk reaction to violence and because it provides a simple cause-effect explanation removing us from any responsibility.

But is there an alternative? If the anarchists aren’t at fault, who is? The reality is that finding fault is irrelevant to begin with. Trying to find someone to blame begins with the false premise that there is in fact someone or something that can be identified as the single cause for our problems. Thus, the alternative to blaming the perpetrators is looking at the issue from a totally different perspective.

Systems thinking

Let me begin by quickly defining the opposite of systems thinking, which I will in this case call linear thinking. Using linear thinking we would conclude that because the anarchists were the ones wrecking places, the problem is in the anarchists. It provides a simple analysis: anarchists break places -> anarchists are the problem. Cause and effect.

Systems thinking would instead begin by trying to view the phenomenon as part of the whole society. According to systems thinking, in order to understand a single event it has to be observed in the context of the larger whole it is part of. In this case, the anarchists’ actions would be explained in the context of the underlying social problems that influence the anarchists’ behavior.

By understanding systems thinking we would realize that the anarchists’ actions do not represent the failing of an individual, but are the end result of some systemic structures in our society. The real issues leading to the events on independence day might have been developing for years, if not decades. Thus, issuing blame on individuals is useless, if not dangerous because it prevents us from understanding the real causes.

I am not saying that individuals shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. Free will still exists and individuals need to take responsibility for their behavior.

What I am saying is that we need to start talking about the real issues rather than pointing fingers.

Creative Commons Skate and riots by Sergio is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Systems thinking fundamentals

Events, behavior, structure

Why is it sometimes so incredibly difficult to change one’s behavior? Why do some events and outcomes seem to repeat themselves over and over regardless of our best attempts to change them? And why do some countries and areas have more crime, poverty and other societal issues than others? If you have read my older posts, you might agree with me that crime and poverty are not first and foremost the failing of an individual, but the results of system level problems. In this blog post I want to introduce an effective systems thinking approach for identifying the root causes of systemic problems.

The tip of the iceberg

We humans tend to become pre-occupied with reacting to events that require our immediate attention. I’m guessing this is partly because of our ancestors’ survival instincts. Our primitive ancestors were forced to react immediately – to fight or flight – to threats in their environment or perish. Being armed with the same instincts, our emotions guide us to quickly react to arising problems. This is a necessary skill if you want to survive in the nature, but the bias towards the immediate sometimes prevents us from understanding the real reasons behind certain problems. The problem is that our instincts are not always so good at recognizing which problems are truly important and which ones are merely urgent. This hinders our ability to see the bigger picture and to recognize slowly evolving changes affecting us.

With increased complexity, the issues we deal with as individuals and as a society require much deeper understanding than the problems our ancestors had to face. Quick fixes never work because the underlying root causes are left untreated. To make matters worse, our ancestors’ survival instincts cause us to over-react emotionally even when the problem at hand would require us to keep our cool. News and other media amplify this problem by giving emphasis on bad news. The media also tends to focus on reporting one-time events, celebrity news and entertainment, which distorts people’s world view and hides the real issues.

The over-emphasis on one-time events is dangerous. It prevents us from understanding the real problems behind issues and creates a quick-fix culture. If the economy is down, we blame the government. When there is disease, we treat the symptoms. Where there is poverty, we give money to the poor or blame the individual. What we need to understand is that events and the perceived state of affairs are the end results of complex processes instead of simple cause-effect relationships.  They are only the tip of an iceberg.

What is hiding under water?

How can we re-orient ourselves to understand the whole iceberg? Peter Senge, a well-known organizational learning expert and a systems thinker, tackles the issue in his book The Fifth Discipline. According to Senge, there are always multiple levels of explanation to a complex situation. Understanding the different levels of complexity can help us find the root causes of problems and prevents us from jumping into conclusions about a situation. Take a look:

Events

I recently read a news piece about a Finnish nickel mine company, situated in my home region Kainuu. The article stated that the company had failed the expectations of its shareholders and the people in the region. The article also described comments from the shareholders, many of whom were small investors and had invested large portions of their savings on the company’s stock. Most of the shareholders interviewed in the article complained that the company and the CEO had failed them, with some stating that the company had outright fooled them out of their money.

The shareholder’s view represented in the article is a demonstration of an event-level explanation. It provides a simple cause-effect analysis of the situation where the mining company and its leadership are seen as the cause for the shareholders’ problems. Losing money is seen to be the outcome of the company’s bad managing. It is extremely tempting to find simple causes behind problems because it protects our own ego and presents the path of least resistance. Unfortunately event explanations are usually based on quickly made conclusions and generalizations that tell more about our own prejudices and fears than about reality.

Patterns of behavior

The second level of explanation already goes much deeper than event explanations. Rather than fixating on single events, we can attempt to find patterns of behavior and long-term trends that affect our lives and our society. In the nickel mine example we might find that small investors are often financially uneducated, which is why they are more easily tempted to place their savings into single investments. The problem definition is now fundamentally different from the previous one. Instead of perceiving the company’s management as the root cause, we would accept that companies sometimes do fail and conclude that the real problem is our inability to take this into account when investing.

Here’s another example: suppose the occurrences of type two diabetes in a nation are rising. A reactionary response, based on an event level explanation would be to prescribe medicine for the disease. Understanding patterns of behavior would, however, enable us to see that obesity is the real problem, which would prompt a very different solution. Instead of treating the symptom, i.e. diabetes, we would try to influence people’s behavior in some way to reduce obesity.

Systemic structure

The third level of explanation is concerned with systemic structures. It essentially means identifying and understanding the structures that push us to behave in a certain way. Structures that affect our behavior include but are not restricted to:

  • physical structures, e.g. transportation infrastructure, architecture
  • cultural & social structures, e.g. social norms, social classes
  • legal & institutional structures, e.g. laws, organizations, regimes
  • economic structures, e.g. financial systems

All the above structures affect our behavior in many ways and are an extremely important to understand. A complex problem must be addressed in the context of the larger whole it is a part of. In the  nickel mine case we could try to identify structures in the financial and cultural systems that drive people to take too much risk. Perhaps there are structures in place that cause us to look for short-term gain or to be impatient with our investments? We could also ask questions about our current economic system: are there some key areas in our system that drive harmful behavior in publicly owned companies? Are we using the right metrics to measure companies’ performance and the economic system as a whole? These kinds of questions help us look at the bigger picture and identify the deeper  causes of problems.

Mental models

The final and the most important level of explanation deals with our mental models. Our human systems are ultimately a reflection our own thinking and the prevailing mental models in our society. Systemic structures are also an outcome – an artefact of sorts – of human thinking. Observing different cultures reveals differences in mental models. Time, for example is viewed very differently in different parts of the world, which has a major impact on the way people behave and plan their lives.

Because mental models influence everything we do it is the ultimate leverage when pursuing change. Therefore, instead of over-emphasizing the significance of one time events, we should observe our thinking habits and see how they affect systemic structures and patterns of behavior.

How to use the different levels of explanation?

Here are some suggestions for using Senge’s framework:

  • Next time you watch news, think about the behavior and the structures that might have caused the events being discussed.
  • If you find yourself blaming someone or something for a problem in your life, try to think of ways you could have prevented it with your own behavior. What could have been done differently? Try to find a structure that might have caused any potential un-beneficial behavior.
  • Observe your own thinking: can you identify strong mental models or mind-sets? If you can identify your mental models, try questioning them. Are they true? Why or why not? You can also try to think of ways your mental models are affecting your behavior.
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Systems thinking fundamentals

Stock and flow pt.1 – introduction and intuition

So far I have done my best to provide some intuition about systems thinking and why it might be important to you (while sharpening my own thinking as well). Through the few examples, we now understand that a system is the product of the interactions of its parts and that the structure of the system causes its behavior. We also know to look for circles of causality instead of fixating on one time events. I will now introduce another very important concept that will further enhance our basic understanding of the systems we deal with in our every day lives. It will also allow us to develop some real systems thinking skills and habits.

Stock and flow

If you let water run freely into a bathtub with the drain plugged up, the water level will start to rise steadily until it fills the bathtub. You have built a stock, in this case a small body of water, into the bathtub. By unplugging the drain in the bathtub, you can increase the outflow of water from the tub, thus decreasing the stock of water. If you had both the faucet on and the drain unplugged, you would have two flows of water, with one flowing into and the other out of the bathtub. Similarly, if you refill your refrigerator without using any of the food, you will have accumulated a stock of food. When you begin consuming the food, you increase the outflow from the stock, thus changing the size of the stock. In systems thinking terms, you have created a system of stock and flow.

Bathtub

Stock and flow systems are a fundamental systems thinking concept that are used when doing a system analysis. It is important to understand stock and flow systems because it helps us understand the various systems that affect our lives. A stock and flow system is usually illustrated with a following kind of image:

stock and flow

Usually flows are represented with an arrow similar to the one in the picture, with stocks depicted as squares. The small thingy on the arrow represents a mechanism which can influence the flow into the stock. In the bathtub example the mechanism would be the faucet, but it can also be something immaterial, e.g. laws or other restrictions. The small cloud at the other end of the arrow represents a source, which is ignored for the purposes of narrowing down the analysis.

The world is full of stock and flow systems that affect our lives. Airports, train stations, and busy intersections are good examples of physical stock and flow systems. Fisheries are important stock and flow systems found in nature, and are often mentioned when talking about sustainability issues. Many industrial companies can be modeled as relatively simple stock and flow systems, with a flow of supplies coming in for the manufacturing process and a flow of finished goods coming out. Similarly schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores, and even complex political and social systems can be modeled as stock and flow systems.

But why are stocks and flows so important? What does it matter if we know about them or not?

Well, think about the way we usually approach stock and flow systems in our daily lives. We tend to be somewhat ignorant about our behavior towards stocks and flows: how many times have you ended up depleting your stock of food before going to the grocery shop? And how many times have you been stuck in traffic because you did not leave early enough to avoid it? There must have also been times when you have run out of money before the end of the month, having to either use up savings or eat noodles to get by before next pay check. We all tend to have difficulties balancing the stocks and flows of our every day lives.

But since we have difficulties dealing with these very simple systems, what about more complex and more important systems? We often treat natural systems the same way we are treating our refrigerator. We deplete fisheries and acidify the oceans. The rainforests are being hacked away at an alarming rate and we have also been extremely efficient at killing off numerous species of animals. Furthermore, we don’t seem to fully understand the workings of our own man-made systems either! This was demonstrated in the 2008 financial crisis, whose aftermath we are still living today.

If we want to live in a sustainable way and make sure we have a place in this world, we need to develop our understanding of the systems we deal with every day. Understanding stock and flow is only one part of the equation, but it is a very important part. In order to better understand stock and flow, I will next time talk about balancing and reinforcing feedback!

Practice suggestion: Try to look for stock and flow systems in your surroundings. Try to identify the different flows and the stocks they are flowing into and out of. Notice: the flows and the stocks can be either tangible (e.g. water, people, food) or intangible (electronic currency, ideas, political opinions).

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Systems thinking examples

Systems thinking example 3: the faucet

In the previous two examples I have introduced two basic systems thinking principles. The automobile example from Russell Ackoff demonstrated that a system is not the sum of its part but the product of their interactions. The second example was from Donella Meadows, and the lesson was that the behavior of the system can only be changed by changing the system itself. In this blog post I will briefly touch upon how to think about any situation using systems thinking with an example from Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline.

Let’s begin again with a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re thirsty and decide to have glass of water. You take a glass, go to a water tap and fill the glass in order to have a drink. If we were thinking linearly, we would see a simple cause and effect relationship: you filling a glass of water. However, the situation looks different from a systems point of view. (The below pictures are from Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline.)

Faucet

When you’re filling the glass with water, there are actually several things happening at the same time. You have a desired water level in mind, so while the water is pouring into the glass, you’re monitoring the ‘gap’ between the current water level and your goal. As the water level rises, you are adjusting the faucet with your hand and finally closing it when the water has reached the desired level. You are, in fact, engaged in a system that has five variables:

  1. the desired water level
  2. the current water level
  3. the gap between the two
  4. the faucet position and
  5. the water flow

Faucet 2

The above picture illustrates how the different elements of the system influence one another. You can begin reading the picture from anywhere. An arrow indicates the direction of influence. Desired water level influences the perceived gap, which influences the faucet position, which again has an influence on the water flow. When the water flow changes, it in turn has an effect on the current water level, which finally influences the perceived gap.

This is how systems thinkers view situations, problems and the world in general. Instead of one time events and simple cause-effect relationships, they see circles of causality. This thinking can be applied to practically every major problem out there.

Think about terrorism for instance: most of the time we only pay attention to the one time incidents and terrorist attacks we see in the news. What we don’t know is what has been influencing the terrorists in a way that causes them to take violent action. With only superficial knowledge about the reasons behind terrorism, we then respond in fear and anger, which often only increases the terrorists’ conviction.

Not all situations work this way though. If you were to kick a ball, the ball would simply bounce away. Here a simple cause-effect analysis would be sufficient and the event could be explained with physics. However, if you were to kick a dog, the poor creature would react in some way. It might run away, but it could also attack you. You are influencing the dog’s behavior by kicking it and in return the dog will influence your behavior by attacking you. If I were to walk in a room where I only see the dog attacking you, I might easily jump into conclusions about the dog too quickly. This is how we humans perceive the world most of the time, which is why our problem definitions are often so badly off the mark.

The Principle: Instead of seeing one time events, look for circles of causality.

Other implications of this principle:

  • Next time when someone is angry at you, try to look for ways you might have influenced his or her behavior.
  • In the news you see only one time events and the end results of some larger phenomenon. Instead of talking about the event itself, try to think about what kind of circles of causality might have caused the event.
  • In an arms race between nations there is no one country or individual to blame. It is the result of all the countries influencing one another.

Ps. Take a look at this short introductory video for systems thinking:

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Systems thinking examples

Systems thinking example 2: Slinky

Slinky

In her book Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows tells how she would often bring a slinky to her classes in order to teach her students systems thinking. What exactly can we learn about systems thinking from a slinky?

Suppose you’re holding a slinky in one upturned hand with the other hand under the slinky. Holding the slinky with one hand you pull the other hand away and let slinky loose. As you’d imagine, the lower end of slinky will bounce up and down in air, with the upper end suspended in your fingers. The question is: what made slinky bounce up and down?

The first answer that might cross your mind is that your hand was the cause. By removing your hand below slinky you let it loose which made it bounce. However, it’s clear that you would not get the same reaction by holding a book, a hammer, or anything else other than slinky in your hand. Slinky bounces up and down because of some inherent characteristic within slinky itself. If that’s the case, what does this actually teach us about systems thinking?

In slinky’s case its easy to understand that slinky is a physical system whose behavior is fundamentally dependant upon two things: 1. the characteristics of the system, 2. outside forces affecting the system. If you manipulate slinky in different ways you would get different behaviors, but the behaviors would always be closely related to slinky’s internal qualities.

But why is this important? Well, just think about how governments, politicians, organizations and institutions usually approach problem solving. Drug problems are solved by putting addicts into prison, type two diabetes is taken care of by prescribing medicine, and poor economic growth is resolved by subsidizing badly performing industries. Different countries have their own bad examples, but the thinking behind the issues is often the same. We as humans tend to often focus only on changing the way we manipulate a system, instead of changing the system itself!

With simple physical systems we know how to make system change possible: you would not use slinky to hammer a nail, you’d use a hammer. However, with more complex systems, such as schools systems or cities, we sometimes forget that the behavior we witness is the result of the system acting the way it’s design to act. If the end result of a system is drug addicts and population suffering from diabetes, then the system has been designed to produce these results. Instead governments and organizations often find blame in some outside forces. They try to fix the issue by starting initiatives and programs rather than changing the system itself. In the US the government appears to often declare war against societal issues, effectively preventing any real change from happening. In Finland, our government attempts to get students to graduate faster by placing restrictions on maximum study years, which is another demonstration of linear thinking.

The principle: The system itself often causes its own behavior. In order to change the behavior, change the system.

Other implications of this principle:

  • A failing industry is not always the result of bad policy or leadership. Creative destruction is part of the continuous cycle of innovation that drives our economies (a self-renewing system)
  • Type two diabetes and heart problems are not the failing of an individual. We have encouraged the development of industries that produce foods that are cheap and unhealthy. We have also made easy access to these foods possible.
  • Long times of graduation in Finland are not because students are lazy. Our education system encourages students to postpone graduation.
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Systems thinking fundamentals

What is Systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world. According to 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 overall spending. 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 relationships between the parts of the whole are not assumed to be purely cause-effect relationships. Furthermore, a system 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 differently? 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, it can’t stay if it makes the 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:

References:

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

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

 
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