in Leadership

On “Systems Thinking” and Improvement

A few years back, when I was struggling with some repetitive/difficult situations at work, one of my seniors (and a good friend) asked me, “Do you know the root cause of your problem?”. He went on to draw a diagram on his notebook, and connected the problem to the other parts of the organizational system. I realized that I was fighting the symptom, whereas the root cause was something completely different.

He told me, “As long as you fight individual fires and try to find single reason for all your problems without looking at the bigger picture, you will never see any improvement in your work.

Today, when I am responsible for improvements in a business environment, this lesson serves me well. My friend introduced me to the powerful concept of “systems thinking.” Ability to see relationships and patterns in different (and seemingly unrelated) elements of work is an essential skill for a modern day professional, because we are surrounded by systems. Right from human body to software we write and communities we belong to, everything is a system and improvement can only happen when we really understand the interconnectedness between different components within a system.

You can change the system only when you know the system – and knowing the system is a curious and creative pursuit. Improvement starts when you are “intentional” about being curious and creative.

I have seen doctors who try to “cure” isolated parts of the body without worrying about the root causes and I have seen leaders who try to “quick fix” every problem that comes their way. Systems thinking (or seeing the bigger picture) is not just a problem solving method, but an important tool for continual improvement.

In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge emphasizes that we need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

He adds, “Reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines."

Bottom line: Think systems, not events. Next time you solve a problem or implement a significant change: Solve the immediate problems, but do not forget to look for systemic connections and causes. Observe trends, see patterns, study the history of changes. Remain curious and be creative.

Join in the conversation: How do you see patterns and systems? How well do you connect the different parts of your work? What would you recommend?

  1. It is certainly true that systems-thinking is THE way to solve the problem.
    But, paradoxically, one also has to learn to go deep to the components of the whole; adopt both bottoms up or top down approach – taking into consideration the merits of the situation.
    The lasting solution is designed and implemented at the point where the problem occured.

    • Thanks for the comment Ashok.

      In my view, most technically proficient professionals that I see are deep into the components. At a certain professional maturity, ability to go deep into one component with a broader view of the system in which the component operates becomes a very vital skill for further growth.

      Best,
      Tanmay

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