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What is "Systems Thinking" in general?

Jürgen Kanz
Published by in Systems Thinking ·
Tags: SystemsThinkingSystemDynamicsTools
We live in a complex, dynamic world where everything is connected to everything else.

In order to make good decisions in this world as an individual, organization or society, we need new approaches, methods and perspectives to keep up with the constant and often needed changes around us.

Systems Thinking leads to a deeper and better understanding about relations. Hence, it is for me the key to tackle all kind of challenges.


What is a System?
There are numerous definitions for the term "system", which continues to provide a basis for confusion among many. Here are three definitions that I like the most.


“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something…. a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.”


A system is a set of interdependent components that work together towards a common goal. Without a goal we do not have a system."

My view:
Systems are formed from sets of interacting parts where every part effects and is effected by every other part, and the behaviour of the system emerges from the interactions. On my websites a system is defined as follows:

  • an assembly of components, connected together in an organised way
  • the components are affected by being in the system and the behaviour of the systems is changed if they leave it
  • the organised assembly of components does something
  • the assembly has been identified as being of particular interest.
  • the system has an overall purpose.

Particle, atom, molecule, cell, organ, person, community, department, organization, state, nation, world, solar system, galaxy, and universe, can be considered as systems with increasing levels of complexity.


Systems Views
There are very different views one may have of a system, and rightly so, because systems come in forms and people have multiple perspectives.


The Vertical Perspective



The Horizontal Perspective (Example: typical company)


Whatever the perspective on a system might be, there are two fundamental different ways to investigate systems, when someone tries to understand them.



Analysis – Scientific reductionism
(Descartes, 1596-1650)

  • Separate the parts
  • Try to understand what the parts do
  • Assemble the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole

This is the typical approach, that is teached and trained during life. Russell Ackoff was very fond of saying that analysis is incapable of answering the WHY? questions about a system.




Systems Thinking - Synthesis
(Von Bertalanffy, 1954)

  • Systems Thinking is an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system
  • What is this a part of? Identify the containing whole of which this is a part.
  • Try to explain the behavior of the containing whole.
  • Disaggregate the understanding of the containing whole by identifiying the role or function of what I'm trying to explain in that whole.


Systems Thinking Tools
The mainly used tool in common Systems Thinking is the "Causal Loop Diagram". This post can never be a training course in systems thinking and its tools, therefore I will only just show some basic aspects. The following screenshots are taken from a video by Gene Bellinger. Gene is a master in systems thinking and it was an honour for me to get him as a trainer.


Screenshot of a video by Gene Bellinger [1]

The above image shows a graphical representation of some basics. Between A and B we can recognize arrows. These arrows are used to indicate a causality among two entities. So, their relationship is causal. The word causal is rooted in causality (1. the relationship between cause and effect, and 2. the principle that everything has a cause).

With this basic elements we can decribe already a system in the following way:


Screenshot of a video by Gene Bellinger [1]

The B's and R's represent so called Ballancing and Reinforcement Loops inside the system.
Please be aware that we still have a static model here about "Joe P. Manager's Challenge".

System Dynamics
System dynamics, developed by J. W. Forrester in the 1960s, goes far beyond diagrams to analyse the behaviour of complex systems using qualitative and quantitative methods to model the dynamics of systems.

The models of Systems Dynamics go beyond those of sign graphs by providing mathematical fomulae to produce the value for the change at a node at at time t+1 based on all the input values at time t. This enables the values associated with each node to be computer through time as a computer simulation. Thus System Dynamics lies at the intersection between qualitative systems thinking and quantitative complex systems analysis.


Simulation example by Gene Bellinger [2]



Sources:
[1] Gene Bellinger, Creating Insights with Insight Maker, Causal Loop Diagram, December 18, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZrtwGXpHXA, last accessed on May 20th, 2019
[2] Gene Bellinger, Insight Maker, Modeling and Simulation, MSI02, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMku9XzazGo, last accessed on May 20th, 2019



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