Systems Thinking, OLAM 310
Professor Don Solomon
May 2, 2010
Systems Thinking and Obesity
From the time I was 6 years old I have wanted just one really personal thing for my life and that is to be thin. I was always the girl who thought she weighed more than anyone else in the class. I have been plagued my entire life by this overwhelming issue of being overweight. True understanding of why I was overweight and what caused it has for many years kept me from making any life lasting changes. How does this play into Systems Thinking? Let’s take a step back and take it from the beginning.
A system is a set of elements or components that work together in relationships for the overall objectives/vision of the whole. To understand how they are used in organizations, we first must understand a system. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the term. However, we need to make the understanding explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools in organizations and life.
Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems. For example, an organization is made up of many administrative and management functions, products, services, groups and individuals. If one part of the system is changed, the nature of the overall system is often changed, as well -- by definition then, the system is systemic, meaning relating to, or affecting, the entire system. Systems range from simple to complex. There are numerous types of systems. For example, there are biological systems (for example, the heart), mechanical systems (for example, a thermostat), human/mechanical systems (for example, riding a bicycle), ecological systems (for example, predator/prey) and social systems (for example, groups, supply and demand and also friendship). Complex systems, such as social systems, are comprised of numerous subsystems, as well. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts, and includes various inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving the goal of the system. If any of the parts or activities in the system seems weakened or misaligned, the system makes necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve its goals.
How do these organizational and human systems work? The organization or the human system is like a puzzle. Each piece in the puzzle directly touches other pieces of the puzzle, but each puzzle piece is a single piece of the whole picture. Every piece is just as important as the others, each piece serves a vital role in the whole picture and if just one piece were missing the picture would not be nearly as meaningful. Systems Thinking is a bit like the puzzle, while each issue may have direct effect upon only four or five other piece it is still a tiny piece of the whole and in order for the best possible outcomes the whole puzzle must be analyzed when solving problems.
Thinking systemically can increase the leaders’ effectiveness by allowing him to see all of the pieces of the puzzle. Looking at this whole puzzle leaders can make small, well-focused actions that will sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements. (Senge, 2006, p. 64) Another benefit leaders have when using Systems Thinking is that they know there is not a “their problem” or “our problem” that all problems are part of a single system. Senge (2006) tells us that...