Intro to Systems Thinking for Workplace Performance Improvement

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It’s common to hear people talking about the importance of systems thinking in the workplace these days.

The point that folks make is that if you want to really solve problems, or really grasp opportunities, you’ve got to think of issues systemically.

I’ve heard this same basic point made by people in different work circles: learning and development, safety, operations, maintenance, HR, and more.

And beyond that, the point is often extended with some helpful advice: think of connections instead of disconnections/silos; think in circles instead of in a linear manner; think in wholes instead of parts; think of synthesis instead of analysis; think of relationships instead of about things in isolation. Be big-picture. Be holistic.

And that advice is good, to a point. But I also find it somewhat vague and hard to act on.

As a result, I decided to do a little reading on systems thinking to learn more. I’m hoping that by learning about different systems archetypes, different components of systems, and the different ways systems grow/decline, it will make it easier to identify systems at work, determine how they work, and then try to change them when I want to.

I’m doing this as a bit of a “learning out loud” project, not entirely knowing where this will go or how useful it will be. As a result, even though I always invite your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below, that’s especially true for this article. If you’ve got your own favorites sources about systems thinking, your own thoughts about systems thinking and how to apply it at work, or if you can begin to point out how to apply some of the lessons below in specific contexts, please do share!

In the credit-where-credit is due section, I should note that this article is largely based on the first-half of the book Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows. We are deeply endebted to Meadows here and in no way do we think this captures all the great thought in the book. Please consider buying a copy of the book today, as it goes into much more detail and includes many helpful examples and illustrations. It’s our plan to return to some of the materials in the second-half of Meadows’ book in future articles.

What Is a System?

So let’s start by figuring out what a system is. Here’s how Meadows explains it:

A system is a set of things–people, cells, molecules, or whatever–interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.

(Meadows, p. 2)

Although systems are rarely if ever simple, at least the definition seems simple enough, right?

For example, your body is a system. Your family is a system. Your workplace is a system. And so is the watershed in your area, the national economy, global climate, and the solar system.

So What’s NOT a System?

Going back to our definition of a system, it’s important to remember that is not just a random collection of things. The things in a system have to have relationships and interconnections that produce a pattern of behavior over time.

Our national economy includes things like consumers, businesses, banking institutions, the media, government agencies such as regulators and agencies empowered to levy taxes, and more to create patterns of behavior such as the business cycle.

My new shirt, the bicycle in my garage, the books in my library, and the tree in my front yard are not interconnected in a way that creates a behavioral pattern despite the fact that they’re all located on one plot of land.

Now think about your workplace: workers in different job roles, supervisors, upper management, customers, suppliers, vendors, your office building, your IT infrastructure, and more are all interrelated in a way that creates a behavioral pattern. Your workplace is a system. And it includes smaller sub-systems as well.

Three Aspects of a System: Elements, Relationships, and Purpose

To help identify systems, and to possibly later attempt to change their behavior, it helps to know that systems have three parts:

  • Elements
  • Interconnections
  • A function or purpose (Meadows, p. 11)

For example, the traffic system where you live includes elements, such as people, cars, pedestrians, bikes, roads, and so on; these elements are interrelated, at least in part, by the rules and laws that govern behavior on the road, by different methods of communication, and by people’s individual decision making; and the purpose is to help move people, vehicles, and economic goods from place to place.

Likewise, your workplace is a system with elements (workers, managers, buildings, desks, machines, computers, etc.) that are interrelated in a way to achieve a function, such as producing your product or achieving your organization’s mission statement.

Meadows makes a few important points about the elements, interconnections, and functions of a system.

The first is that it can be easy to identify and therefore get fixated on the elements:

The elements of a system are often the easiest parts to notice, because many of them are visible, tangible things…you can divide elements into sub-elements and then sub-sub-elements. Pretty soon you lose sight of the system. As the saying goes, you can’t see the forest for the trees. (Meadows, p. 12-13)

Instead, Meadows recommends focusing on interconnections and relationships:

“Before going too far in that direction, it’s a good idea to stop dissecting out elements and to start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together.”

(Meadows, p.14)

However, she notes that the relationships aren’t always as obvious as the elements of a system.

It’s easier to learn about a system’s elements than about its interconnections…These kind of interconnections are often harder to see, but the system reveals them to those who look.

(Meadows, pp. 14-15)

Finally, regarding the function or purpose of a system, Meadows points out:

Functions or purposes are even harder [to see]…A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily spoken, written, or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system. The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves…purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or states goals…System purposes need not be human purposes and are not necessarily those intended by any single actor within the system. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of systems is that the purposes of sub-units may add up to an overall behavior that no one wants…[she gives an example of a system producing drug addiction]…Systems can be nested within systems. Therefore, there can be purposes within purposes. Keeping sub-purposes and overall purposes in harmony is an essential function of successful systems.

(Meadows, pp. 14-16)


How to Change the Behavior of a System

In some cases, you may be absolutely delighted with the behavior created by a system, and in those cases, you probably won’t wonder how to change that behavior.

However, if you’ve pulled our your systems thinking mental model from your cognitive toolbox, there’s a good chance you’re doing it because you’re interested in modifying the behavior of that system. And that raises the next logical question–what’s the best way to do that?

Meadows explains that people often try to change the behavior of a system by changing one of its elements–for example, getting a new head of Operations at work. But she cautions that making this kind of  change in a system usually isn’t too impactful on the system’s behavior, and instead suggests instead considering making changes to the system’s interconnections or purposes. Here’s how she puts it:

Changing elements usually has the least effect on the system. If you change all the players on a football team, it is still recognizably a football team… A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements–as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact…

If the interconnections change, the system may be greatly altered. It may even become unrecognizable, even though the same players are on teh team. Change the rules from those of football to those of basketball, and you’ve got, as they say, a whole new ball game…Changing interconnections in a system can change it dramatically.

Changes in function or purpose also can be drastic. What if you keep the players and the rules but change the purpose–from winning to losing, for example…A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.

…the least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior. Interconnections are also critically important. Changing relationships usually changes system behavior. The elements, the parts of systems we are most likely to notice, are often (not always) least important in defining the unique characters of the system–unless changing an element also results in changing relationships or purpose. (Meadows, pp. 15-17)

Stocks and Flows in Systems

Meadows explains that while there are many different systems, they all have certain things in common:

  • Stocks
  • Flows (Meadows, pp. 17-18)

We’ll look at all below.

Stocks in Systems

Meadows explains that stocks are:

“the foundation of any system” and that “you can see, feel, count, or measure” stocks “at any given time….A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity, an accumulation of material or information that has built up over time” (see pages 17 and 18).

A stock might be made up of physical objects or things: the natural resources you extract, your inventory, finished goods/products, your employees, your machine guards, and so on. Or a stock can be something intangible: the accumulated knowledge within your organization, your ability to innovate, your resilience or capacity to complete a job successfully without a safety incident, the good will or engagement of employees, and so on.

For an easy example, our oceans are stocks in the global water system.

Flows in Systems

Stocks are fed or emptied by flows. Inflows feed stocks and cause them to grow; outflows drain stocks and cause them to shrink.

Returning to our example of the ocean as a stock, rivers are inflows that feed oceans, rains are another inflows, and evaporation is an outflow that drains oceans.

If your stock is your inventory, production is a inflows that feeds it and sales is a outflow that reduces it. If your stock is your employee population, your inflow is hiring and your outflow is employee departure.

Likewise, your organization’s accumulated employee knowledge, learning agility, ability to innovate, and resilience/capacity have inflows and outflows.

Thoughts on Stocks and Flows

The overall balance between inflows and outflows in the system will ultimately determine if the stock increases or decreases. So your stock may increase/rise, stay in equilibrium, or decrease/fall. Meadows makes an interesting point about inflows and outflows:

The human mind seems to focus more easily on stocks than on flows. On top of that, when we do focus on flows, we tend to focus on inflows more easily than on outflows. Therefore, we sometimes miss seeing that we can fill a bathtub not only by increasing the inflow rate but also by decreasing the outflow rate. (Meadows, p. 23)


Feedback and Feedback Loops in Systems

The behavior of a system, including the stock grows, decreases, or stays stable, is sometimes but not always controlled by feedback loops, and feedback loops tend to cause systems to behave in a consistent manner. As Meadows puts it:

It is the consistent behavior pattern over a long period of time that is the first hint of the existence of a feedback loop…A feedback loop is formed when changes in a stock affect the flows into or out of that same stock…Feedback loops can cause stocks to maintain their level within a range or grow or decline. In any case, the flows into our out of the stock are adjusted because of changes in the size of the stock itself. Whoever or whatever is monitoring the stock’s level begins a corrective process, adjusting rates of inflows or outflow or both) and so changing the stock’s level. The stock level feeds back through a chain of signals and actions to control itself.

Two types of feedback loops to be aware of are:

  • Stabilizing loops (balancing the feedback)–when the feedback loop works to keep the stock at a stable level or within a stable range (example: you drink some coffee, get energy to do some work, and energy expenditure returns you to your earlier level of energy)
  • Runaway loops (reinforcing the feedback)–when the feedback loop works to amplify the growth or decline of a stock (example: the more rabbits you have, the more baby rabbits you get, so the more rabbits you wind up with)

Three Reasons Why Systems Work Well

Meadows lists three reasons that systems work well in our world. They are:

  • Resilience
  • Self-organization
  • Hierarchies

Let’s look at each in more detail.

Systems are Resilient

Resilience is the ability for the system to persist despite changing circumstances.

Meadows says that “resilience arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after a large perturbation” and that “A set of feedback loops that can restore or rebuild feedback lops is resilience at a still higher level–meta resilience, if you will.” (Meadows, p 76)

Meadows also notes that resilience is not the same as being unchanging, stating that “Resilient systems can be very dynamic…people often sacrifice resilience for stability, or for productivity, or for some other more immediately recognizable system property.” (Meadows, pp. 76-77)

The trick at work, of course, is to determine if we want the system’s behavior to persist or to change. If we want to strengthen the system, we should act to make the system more resilient. If we want to weaken the system, we should act to make the system less resilient.

Systems Can Self-Organize

Systems also have the ability to self-organize, becoming increasingly diverse and complex over time.

Self-organization can be a great force for innovation and continual improvement. As Meadows notes:

Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability. It is likely to come up with whole new structures, whole new ways of doing things. It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder. These conditions that encourage self-organization often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures.” (Meadows, pp. 79-80)

In regards to self-organization, Meadows notes:

Self-organization is such a common property…that we take it for granted…if we weren’t nearly blind to the property of self-organization, we would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying, the self-organization capacities of the systems of which we are pa part…Like resilience, self-organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stability. Productivity and stability are the usual excuses for turning creative human beings into mechanical adjuncts to production processes…or for establishing bureaucracies and theories of knowledge that treat people as if they were only numbers.  (Meadows, p. 79)

Do you want the systems at work to lead to greater innovations and continuous improvement? If so, you may want to “unleash” systems, allowing for the freedom and experimentation Meadows talks about. This means being willing to let go of control at times and may be uncomfortable or messy, but can lead to large benefits.

Systems Include Hierarchies

Systems often self-organize into hierarchies, with a system including one or more sub-system.

Having one or more stable sub-system that regulates itself, which a larger system regulates and coordinates the smaller sub-systems, leads to stability and efficiency. So there’s a definite benefit to hierarchy in systems.

But of course, things can go astray in the hierarchies of a system as well. Meadows notes:

When a subsystem’s goals dominate at the expense of the total system’s goals, the resulting behavior is called suboptimization…Just as damaging as suboptimization, of course, is the problem of too much central control…To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system–there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, function, and self-organizing.

Conclusion: How Can YOU Use Systems Thinking at Work?

We hope you found this introduction to systems thinking helpful and perhaps see some ways to benefit from systems thinking at work right now. Keep in mind that we plan to return to some additional parts of Meadows’ book to consider some additional thoughts around using systems thinking more productively at work, including some reasons why systems often surprise us, some tips for modifying the behavior of a system, and how we can succeed while living in a world of systems.

Please let us know any insights or questions you have about systems thinking and stay tuned for more from us on the topic.

And before you go, please consider downloading our free PDCA Cycle infographic. 

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FREE PDCA Cycle Infographic

Download this free infographic of the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle commonly used for quality control, project planning, and continuous improvement.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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