Using Systems Thinking to Solve Real-World Problems

by Jamie P. Monat and Thomas F. Gannon

“Systems thinking focuses on the relationships among system components and the interactions of the system with its environment, as opposed to focusing on the components themselves… Those relationships typically dominate the behavior of systems.” As an antidote to myopia, systems thinking takes a holistic and integrative approach.

“Systems are also dynamic and are constantly subject to various forces and feedback mechanisms. Some of those forces and mechanisms and stabilizing and some are reinforcing or de-stabilizing. If a system has feedback loops with delays, the system may oscillate, and that behavior is often counter-intuitive… System dynamics modeling are used to help understand the behavior of systems over time, identify the driving variables so that system behavior may be positively impacted, and predict future states.”

“Systems thinking is most useful for understanding the behavior of systems… To understand behaviors (events and patterns), one must first identify and understand the systemic structures and underlying mental models that yield them… The Iceberg Model argues that mental models and systemic structures, which are often hidden, give rise to events and patterns (often in the form of behaviors) that can be observed.” These structures can lead to either desired results or unintended consequences. An example of a mental model would be “incentive compensation increases productivity.” A corresponding systemic structure would be a sales commission plan.

“An excellent first step in figuring out how a system works is to draw a Causal Loop Diagram, [which shows] how the various system components interrelate. They are especially helpful in showing reinforcing and balancing feedback processes, which are present in most systems (and are often ignored in linear thinking analyses). Feedback loops are sometimes obvious, as is the positive (reinforcing) feedback mechanism in interest compounding in a bank account or in the negative (stabilizing) feedback mechanism in a home thermostat… On the other hand, sometimes the feedback loops are not so obvious (as in the case of financial bailouts reinforcing bad business decisions).”

“In systems, some quantities are stored while others flow. These may be real physical quantities such as dollars, volume of water, number of customers, or number of cabbages in a field. They may also be non-physical quantities such as love, anger, greed, or other emotions. Stores or accumulations of these items are called ‘stocks.’ Stocks increase or decrease as quantities flow into or out of them… Stock-and-flow diagrams are helpful in understanding systemic behavior.”

“System dynamics is the study and analysis of non-linear behavior of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, feedback loops, and time delays. The behavior of a complex system is often non-intuitive and difficult to understand. Modeling the system helps one understand why the system (company/individual/department) behaves the way it does. Modeling also helps identify points and how one can influence system behavior.”

“In systems thinking, archetypes are problem-causing structures that are repeated in many situations, environments, and organizations. Being facile at identifying them is the first step in changing the destructive structure.” There are 10 common archetypes: accidental adversaries, fixes that fail (policy resistance), limits to growth, shifting the burden (addiction), the tragedy of the commons, drift to low performance (eroding goals), escalation, the rich get richer, rule beating, and seeking the wrong goal.

“Root cause analysis is a problem solving method… [which] involves tools such as ‘The Five Whys,’ fishbone diagrams [aka Ishikawa diagrams], cause-and-effect diagrams, process flowcharts, run charts, statistical process control charts, and Pareto diagrams.”

“Many systematic root-cause analyses lead to the system’s underlying culture or environment as the systemic root cause.” For example, the root cause of the Enron scandal was “a corporate culture of greed, lying, and cheating, coupled with arrogance and creativity.” The root cause of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was “a corporate culture of cost-cutting and not taking risks or safety seriously.”

“A spectacular characteristic of systems is their exhibition of emergent properties: systemic properties that cannot be predicted from the characteristics of the system components, but derive from the relationships among the components or between the components and the environment… Examples of emergence in human-designed systems include the meaning of words, traffic jam patterns, reliability, security, usability, countries, and the power of religion to influence behavior… Emergent properties often dominate systemic behavior.”

“Emergence often derives from self-organization… Self-organization is present whenever a pattern develops as a result of the interactions of system components. No central plan of central planner need exist for systems to self-organize. Geese self-organize into V-formations.”

“Systems thinking has great power in solving complex problems that are not solvable using conventional reductionist thinking. It can help to explain non-linear behaviors like market reactions to new product introductions or the spread of disease; to understand complex socio-economic problems such as the effects of charter schools or legalized gambling; and to understand the seemingly illogical behaviors of organizations and individuals.”

“Systems thinking requires that we ask: What attitudes and circumstances led to this point? What behavior patterns and actions led to this point? What are the likely attitudes, patterns and actions going forward? What are the probable reactions of others, such as my allies, enemies, competitors, neutral third parties, and the environment? Systems thinking not only requires an understanding of the past, but also a vision of the future.”

The authors note that “systems thinking is not a substitute for either statistical or reductionist (analytic) thinking; it complements them.”

This concise, easy-to-read booklet is about 100 pages. The authors are engineering professors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In the first half they explain the concepts and in the second half they apply them to a few examples using their 10-step system thinking methodology.

Monat, James P., and Thomas F. Gannon. Using Systems Thinking to Solve Real-World Problems. London: College Publications, 2017. Buy from

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