LANGUAGE OF SYSTEMS THINKING
Focuses on the immediate cause and effect of events. Cause and
effect are assumed to occur together.
Focuses on the interrelationship and dynamics among system
components. Cause and effect are separated in time and space.
Characterized by many variables and complex arrangements. Cause and
effect occur together. It is the basis for linear thinking.
Created by system structural interrelationships and dynamics. Cause
and effect are separated in time and space. It is the basis for
A quantified and optimal solution is possible. Linear thinking
usually provides acceptable solutions to these problems.
No best solution can be determined and many solutions are possible.
Long-term solutions to these problems usually require a systems
Every event or happening is both a cause and an effect.
of circles of causality:
Observed patterns of behavior or results of actions taken.
Highly focused actions that can change system structure.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF SYSTEMS THINKING
are entities with consistent patterns of behavior.
They are characterized by virtuous and vicious cycles and
oscillating movement toward a stabilizing state or goal.
Systems thinking consists of identifying the
feedback processes and dynamics determining system behavior.
All systems can be modeled
using reinforcing (amplifying) processes, balancing processes and
Reinforcing Processes - engines of growth or
Small actions amplify
themselves creating accelerating growth or decline.
Processes - stabilizing processes that operate whenever there is
goal oriented behavior at work.
All balancing processes contain a
self-correcting or governing function that attempts to attain some
goal or target. They are characterized by a gap between actual and
Example of a balancing loop:
OF SYSTEMS THEORY
structure causes its behavior.
cause their own crises. There
are no villains.
these structural interrelationships is necessary to understanding
The ability to influence
fundamental change comes from understanding the structures and
relationships controlling events and behavior.
Changing system output
requires changing the system structure.
systems include the worldview and beliefs of their decision makers
makers and participants.
the output or behavior of human systems requires changing these beliefs.
is the process of changing beliefs.
Systems inertia creates resistance to
Complex systems have high
inertia and are very resistant to change.
Efforts to alter system
behavior without changing its underlying structure may create
short-term improvements but produce more long-term problems.
Example: Government elimination of substandard housing and
replacing it with subsidized housing projects.
Changing systems structure requires leverage
- creating change through highly focused action.
Leverage comes from new ways
of thinking. New ways
of thinking include:
to see structures rather than events.
in terms of processes of change rather than “snapshots.”
human systems, changing the worldview and beliefs of their decision
makers redesigns the system.
potential leverage often goes unrecognized because decision makers
usually focus on their own decisions and ignore their impact on
performance must be optimized at the system level.
both influence and are influenced by the larger system of which they
are a part (circles of causality).
This creates internal structural friction within every
this structural friction requires performance trade-offs and
compromise among subsystems.
system performance is optimized some sub-systems will be performing
at sub-optimal levels.
the entire universe is a system, systems theory applications must
first define the boundaries of the system being measured or managed.
in a perfect society, some social systems will be functioning at
less than optimal levels of performance.
responsibility means subordinating some individual desires for the
good of society.
Only one performance measure can be
optimized (maximized or minimized) when managing system performance.
other performance measures become constraints that
acceptable range of values they can have.
This means that a business
cannot maximize both profits and customer value.
It must choose one to
maximize and set constraints on the other.
Example: Maximize customer
value (defining how this will be measured) subject to operating
profits that provide a minimum after tax return on equity of 20%.
the optimization measure is the first step in systems management.
OF SYSTEMS THINKING
Developing a systems perspective.
are multiple levels of explanation for any complex situation. All
may be true but their usefulness is different.
Of Behavior (trends)
Structure (root cause)
explanations focus on cause and effect. They are the most common
level of explanation and explain why reactive management prevails.
of behavior explanations focus on trends and their implications.
are an attempt to achieve more effective decisions.
explanations are the most powerful and least common. They address
the root causes of problems where patterns of behavior originate and
can be changed.
Creating systems models.
System models are simplified
diagrams that capture the essential dynamic complexity of the system
System models are constructed
using combinations of reinforcing loops, balancing loops and delays.
Well designed systems models
will suggest areas of high leverage and low leverage change.
to growth model
The limits to growth model
contains a reinforcing growth loop, a balancing loop that limits
growth, and a delay that masks problems.
The following example reflects a growth limiting process that
affects every business organization at one time or another.
model illustrates why organizations have a natural growth rate
dictated by some limiting condition.
Problems occur when they try to grow faster than their
limiting condition allows. The
failure of many technology companies in 2000 provides an example of
organizational growth exceeding financing capability.
to growth situations can have multiple limiting conditions.
In this example the availability of new workers or excessive
material lead times could also be limiting factors.
in limits to growth situations comes from discovering and addressing
the limiting conditions or delays.
In this example increasing cash
or credit is the high leverage solution.
Increasing sales demand before
addressing the financing limits will only make the problem worse.
complex models may have several balancing loops each with their own
limiting conditions and delays.
Shifting the burden model
model represents a situation many nonprofit and government
organizations encounter. It
contains two balancing loops and sometimes a delay that creates
undesirable side effects. In
this model one balancing loop represents a quick fix while the
second loop presents the long term solution but contains a delay
which makes it less attractive.
Here is an example of a shifting the burden model.
shifting the burden models, the quick solution appears to make the
situation better and removes the pressure to pursue the long-term
solution. The side
effect makes it even more difficult to invoke the long-term solution
because it shifts responsibility for the problem and makes the
long-term solution even more difficult to attain. The result is an over reliance on the quick solution and
diminished capacity for the long-term solution.
model explains why many well-intentioned efforts to solve a problem
only make it worse by enabling the behavior it is trying to correct.
leverage in shifting the burden structures lies in limiting the
quick solution and strengthening the efforts to accomplish the
long-term solution. Welfare
reform legislation is an example of this.
Systems research has identified about 12
generic system models that can be adapted to most situations. For a
description of these refer to The Fifth Discipline by
Peter Senge, or The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by
Senge and others.
FOR BUILDING A SYSTEM MODEL
The simplest way to build a system model is
to refer to The Fifth Discipline, Appendix 2 and select the generic
model that fits the situation under study and use it as a template
for model construction. The
Fifth Discipline Fieldbook also provides excellent information on
designing system models.
Use the following process to fill in the
template and build the model.
Identify problem symptoms or the events
creating these symptoms.
process uses the event level of explanation.
Look for patterns of behavior or trends that
This process uses the pattern
of behavior level of explanation.
Patterns of behavior are
identified by recurrences of the problem symptoms or related
Use the “multiple why”
process to identify the causes underlying these recurring problem
symptoms. This process is an adaptation of a Japanese quality
technique. It consists
of continually asking “why” to each explanation and subsequent
explanations for each of the problem symptoms until a common cause
Patterns are identified when
problem symptoms can be traced to common causes.
for structural relationships creating these problem symptoms.
This process uses the
systemic structure level of explanation.
Continue the “multiple
why” process used in identifying patterns of behavior until a
fundamental or root cause is apparent.
Structural relationships are identified when the explanation
for the problem symptom changes from one system component to
i.e., explanation for homelessness moves from society
(unemployment) to the individual (addiction) or when the explanation
for a quality problem moves from manufacturing (defective product)
to procurement (improper material).
The system components
identified in this process become the entries on the reinforcing
and/or balancing loops in the template selected at the beginning of
Fill in the feedback loops
loops (virtuous spirals or vicious circles).
will be indicated when activity reflects growth or decline or when
problem symptoms get better or worse.
are the most common and reflect a search for stability. These loops
are present when activity or problem symptoms involve capacity
limitations, goals or targets. These loops will be characterized by
gaps between what exists and what is desired.
systems involve combinations of reinforcing and balancing loops.
reinforcing loops will have one or more balancing loops limiting
growth or decline.
balancing loops will have a limiting or governing function which
regulates its output within the parameters defined by some desired
or limiting function. High leverage actions will involve changing
the parameters defining the limits regulating this balancing
Locate the delays
separating cause and effect.
the delays in seeing the results of actions taken will prevent
over-controlling or excessive actions that create system instability
rather than change.
the completed model to discover the points of leverage.
The template used will help identify these points.