What is systems thinking? Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. That definition and many like it are found all around the internet, but do we know what it looks like in action? I found it confusing in many cases due to these same resources stating that a systems thinking approach is the opposite of breaking a larger system down into its parts to be analyzed and/or improved. It is my opinion that using a systems thinking approach in an organization is a balance of both.
I’ve read a lot about tearing down these functional areas as if they are some kind of barrier standing in the way of a systems approach. I am going to disagree with this and state that we simply need to work with them differently. I strongly agree with the need for these teams, but the information within should be openly available to all other teams and the communication paths should be directly available.
In every business we have a product, service, solution, etc… to provide to someone and in many it is important to have expertise organized into functional teams within the organization. These functional teams need to be in place for organizations to provide important pieces such as expertise, accountability and responsibility. Building a culture of relating these functional teams to systems that are part of a larger system and promoting collaboration between these systems is how I would describe getting your organization to a systems thinking approach.
A systems approach provides many things from efficiencies and cost savings to feedback loops and product improvements. It can even have a positive influence over morale.
After recent discussions on systems thinking I was looking for an example of an organization that utilizes a systems approach effectively. What I realized is that not only is the human body a great example of many things working together for a common goal, but that we study and teach on this subject recognizing each of these parts as systems working together.
If you were to look up the Human Organism and write down the highlights, you are probably going to write something like skeletal system, muscular system, nervous system, etc… See the common factor?
Now hold that thought and let’s look at the human body as we look at our own organizations. Imagine a standard org chart with organ systems breaking down into each system (nervous, muscular, digestive, etc… ), then to the organs themselves (heart, lung, liver, etc… )
From atoms to molecules to organelles that form cells which form tissue which leads to organs that make up an organ system and results in an organism.
If the body worked vertically it probably wouldn’t function let alone be what it is today. The body maintains our functional groups that allows for expertise, responsibility and accountability; but still has many interworking systems.
Notice that when we speak of the functional teams that make up the body, we refer to them as systems. The body has 11 major organ systems, but what you cannot display in such a standard org chart representing the body is the overlapping of these systems. Nearly all of the major organs of the major systems have other organs from other systems connected to them. Notice that I said there are 11 ‘major’ systems. Choose your belief here, but whether fantastic evolution or a genius creator, the need for interworking systems was obviously not overlooked. I listed some organs that fall under their organ system, but what happens when I ask you where the hypothalamus resides? It is a gland so let’s say its functional area is the endocrine system, but it’s function is being responsible for the activities of the autonomic nervous system. This happens to us everyday right? Your software developers are not writing software to develop software.
We’ve decided that with the org chart of the human body if you will, it needs a system to link the system, hence we have what is known as the neuroendocrine system. This is found again and again throughout the human body where functional areas overlap. The muscular and skeletal systems work so closely and are dependent on each other for optimization of movement and support that we have a musculoskeletal system. Genius right?
The musculoskeletal system is not a whole new functional area of the business with new management, etc… Consider instead that it is a space where representatives from both systems come to collaborate on their ideas of how to reach the common goal and then returns to their own system.
Aside from not addressing dependencies from multiple functional areas to optimize the outcome, silos cause other issues in the organization. Regardless what your functional area is, it is better than the others right? If you are an installation tech, you could meet your goals if development had it together and if you are in development your product is fine if only your installation guys were smart enough to implement it.
We’ve got to tear down these silos and interact. Every decision made in a functional system is going to change the overall system. If your change is not matched and/or countered by other changes the result has changed. What a standard org chart (silos) doesn’t do is help us identify where a problem is or visually instill the idea that what one does has a greater consequence to the common goal. As an example, let’s assume you have hypoglycemia.
Well, hypoglycemia is a condition that occurs when your blood sugar (glucose) is too low. Now you have double vision, fast heart, nervous, shaking, sweating, etc… Each system is reacting. If you take medicine to rectify the symptoms without understanding the true cause you could damage your pancreas or cause other systems to work harder to counter the new effects while not actually curing the problem.
Hypoglycemia can be caused by medications or alcohol so it could be the fault of the mouth. If not the mouth maybe the overall digestive system for not breaking down the carbohydrates or back down in that functional system to the pancreas for not producing insulin. Maybe it’s the blood stream and maybe it’s that the liver and/or muscles aren’t storing glucose properly. It very well might be a digestive system problem, but unless we understand how systems overlap you might of just replaced your director of digestion when in fact the problem could of been any one of circulatory, muscular, or endocrine systems.
Similarly, defects in the muscles and bones can be the result of neurological problems, metabolic or vascular disorders, nutritional imbalances, etc… If any one of the systems that make up the human body were to over/under produce or change what it does all together, it can drastically change every other system and the overall result of what they were previously working together to do.
The body has 5 vital organs being the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and pancreas. Scroll up if you need to, but I’ll just tell you that the blocks are red and each resides inside of a functional system. What?! The brain isn’t higher than bones? All of these systems work together and due to this the information uses the nervous, muscular, circulatory, and other systems to share information where they overlap and transport it to another system it interacts with. If you were to put your hand on a hot surface the body reacts by sending signals to other parts of the body. Your muscles contract to pull away, it notifies your brain of the incident, your blood pressure increases while you breath heavier, your pupils dilate, and you start releasing hormones like adrenaline.
Many systems in the body just worked together to notify, react and rectify and it did so by communicating within interworking systems rather than all information leaving the critical areas and coming back via the same point it went it out. Good thing or you might just still have your hand on a hot surface waiting for that single point of communication to be available.
Any living organism is amazing, but remove any one system or even tamper with it without proper communication to the others and if you are still alive, you’ve just caused cancer.
To do this an organization needs to instill a culture of collaboration and team building so that the vital organs can work together while the functional manager acts as a servant leader to keep his experts focused, trained, and with the tools they need to do what they do.
With all of the communication that the body has going on, you can provide it with the right nutrients and not only is it healthy, it becomes self healing when the unknown arises. Shouldn’t your organization be self healing?