A System is basically a collection of parts (or subsystems) which are integrated to accomplish an overall goal (a system of people is an organization). Systems have inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes, with ongoing feedback among these various parts. If even one part of the system is removed, the nature of the entire system is changed. In his book The Fifth Discipline, organizational development theorist Peter Senge developed the notion of organizations as systems (Senge, 1990).
Systems thinking involves the use of various techniques to study systems of many kinds. It includes studying things in a holistic way, rather than the traditional reductionist techniques. Its aim is to gain insights into the whole by understanding the linkages, interactions and processes between the elements that comprise the whole ‘system’.
Systems thinkers consider that a ‘system’ is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit in equilibrium. Information flows between the different elements that compose the system and from and to the surrounding environment throigh semi-permeable membranes or boundaries (Weinberg, 1975).
Systems thinkers are specially interested in studying systems because changing a system mostly leads to counterintuitive system responses. As an example, feedback loops may operate to either keep the organization in check or unbalance it. Traditional decision making mostly focuses on linear cause and effect relationships. When a systems approach is used, we can see the whole complex of bidirectional interrelationships.
Instead of viewing a problem in terms of an input and an output, for example, we take into account the whole system of inputs, processes, outputs, feedback, and controls. This larger picture will generally lead to more useful results than conventional methods. System thinking also helps us integrate the temporal dimension of any decision. So, now managers do not have to look at discrete ‘shapshots’ at points in time, rather, they can see change as a continuous process (Weinberg, 1975).
Systems thinking tools and techniques provide a worldview based on the perspective of the systems sciences, which gives an understanding of the interconnectedness, complexity and wholeness of what comprises systems and their specific relationship to each other. It is not only ‘constructivist’, rather systems thinking combines the values of reductionist science by understanding the parts and the constructivist viewpoints which focus on wholes, and more so, the understanding of the circuitous relationships that enable ‘parts’ to become ‘wholes’ (Banathy, 1996).
Systems thinking uses a variety of techniques that may be divided into:
Hard systems – these involve simulations, often the use of computers and the techniques of operations research. This is generally useful for problems that can justifiably be quantified. But, the problem arises when it cannot easily take into account unquantifiable variables such as opinions, culture, etc), and may treat people as being passive, rather than having complex motivations (Muller-Merbach, 1994).
Soft systems – this is used to tackle systems that cannot easily be quantified, and is extremely valuable for systems involving people interacting with each other or with other ‘systems’. It is useful for understanding motivations, viewpoints, and interactions, all unquanitifiable data but does not provide quantified answers. This is a field that the academic Peter Checkland has done much to develop (Muller-Merbach, 1994).
Evolutionary systems – the development of Evolutionary Systems Design by Bela Banathy integrates critical systems inquiry and soft systems methodologies to create a meta-methodology applicable to the design of complex social systems. They are understood as being open and complex systems but have the potential to evolve with the passing of time. Banathy very finely integrated the multidisciplinary perspectives of systems research (including chaos, complexity, cybernetics), cultural antrhopology, evolutionary theory, and others. Today, systems thinking is increasingly being used to tackle a wide variety of subjects in fields such as managing, computing and the environment (Banathy, 2000).
How systems thinking is helping managers:
Senge defines the very spirit of systems thinking as a shift of mind to: (a) seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and (b) seeing processes of change rather than snapshots. According to him, most systems analysis focuses on detail, not dynamic complexity. This may be a very pivotal point in organizational analysis and planning. If, as mentioned above, most organizations are concerned with only things – details, they may very well be operating with a very limited vision of the world. Senge defines detail complexity as merely one of many variables. This type of complexity does not capture the dynamic complexity that is at work in complex social systems. Daniel Kim (1993) relates a very basic hypothesis proposed by H. A. Simon in Science of the Artificial, “A man, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of his behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which he finds himself” (Gall, 1978).
Systems thinking ‘plops’ the organization and all of its individual players into the context of their environment(s), then sets them moving. Kim’s types of organizational interpretation systems relate the richness and complexity of just the interpretive aspects of an organization alone. Within these multiple dynamic systems, one can even view the organization as a ‘learning system’ (Nevis, DiBella, & Gould, 1995).
The impact of systems theory in management and organizations today is that writers, educators, consultants, etc. are helping managers to look at organizations from a broader perspective. Systems theory has brought with it a new and better way for managers to interpret patterns and events in their organizations. What happened in the past was that managers typically took one part and focused on that. After that, they would make another part their sole focus of attention. The problem with this was that an organization could, for example, have wonderful departments that function effectively by themselves but don’t necessarily gel well together. As a result, the organization suffers as a whole (Nevis, DiBella, & Gould, 1995).
Today, more managers are recognizing the various parts of the organization, and, in particular, the how these parts are interrelated, e.g., the coordination of central offices with other departments, engineering with manufacturing, supervisors with workers, etc. Now, managers give more attention to matters of ongoing organization and feedback. They diagnose problems, not by examining what appear to be separate pieces of the organization, but by recognizing larger patterns of interactions. They maintain perspective by focusing on the outcomes they want from their organizations. Now, managers emphasize the structures that provoke behaviors which lead to occurrence of events – rather than reacting to events as was the traditional method (Nevis, DiBella, & Gould, 1995; Senge, Roberts, Ross, Smith & Kleiner, 1994).
Solving Personnel Problems through Systems Thinking:
The Coast Guard enlisted workforce has been fashioned by two different personnel management strategies over the past decade. The first one was a reduction in the overall number of jobs, implemented in the mid-1990s. Then, as a result of the enlistment shortages caused by new National Security requirements taken on by the Coast Guard after September 11, 2001, a sharp increase in recruitment occurred. Now, with the implementation of opposing personnel management strategies, the system at the Coast Guard suffered greatly and these strategies were the basic cause for what the Coast Guard refers to as “turbulence”, which is simply the undesirable rate of movement through the personnel system.
Above all, the most frustrating aspect of the turbulence problem facing personnel managers was that they were often compelled to fill jobs and positions with whatever personnel resources were immediately available. Younger, less experienced employees were mostly promoted to fill vacant positions at the higher levels, which resulted in extra, unplanned moving costs and an overall less experienced, vulnerable Coast Guard.
To solve this problem, a Systems Thinking methodology was chosen as the basis for the conceptual framework. The Systems Thinking methodology supported the simulation of complex processes and the inter-relationships among the sub-processes and in the end produced a desktop tool that realistically approximated the steady-state effects of personnel flow and personnel turbulence. The methodology was broken up into four main phases: Phase 1: Identifying key personnel; Phase 2: Functional Area Briefs; Phase 3: Model Development and Phase
Validation and Acceptance
In Phase 1, Subject Matter Experts (SME) from the areas of assignment, advancement, training, budget, and others were invited to the group facilitation sessions. They were educated on the differences between the systems view of problem solving and the more traditional, linear cause & effect views of problem solving. Once they were armed with knowledge about the methodology of Systems Thinking, the SME’s from each of the functional areas explained to each other the workings of their specific areas, with most focus on their interaction with the personnel system. After each functional area was summarized to the group, the process of capturing the personnel system using Systems Thinking notation began.
These basic models of the structure of the enlisted personnel system were created in real time, using the input and discussion of the SME’s. CALIBRE spent time translating the discussion into actual iThink® models and towards the end of the SME meetings the iThink® models served as the main discussion piece. The basic models that were created in the facilitated group session were later expanded and integrated into a larger model, focusing on the interactions between each stand-alone model. Additionally, Coast Guard data was gathered and used in this larger model to help validate model accuracy.
The final phase of the methodology was a repetitive process of playback and steering from the working group. The model was then updated to include the group’s proposed changes and recommendations and then played back to validate the changes. Eventually, everyone agreed that the enlisted personnel system was accurately modeled.
There were many advantages that systems thinking provided for the Coast Guard and these appeared as early as the group facilitation session. Seeing the structure of the personnel flow, assignment managers were able to clearly see the natural delays in the advancement and training processes.
Before this effort, Coast Guard managers made decisions in an “organizational vacuum” where they did not and could not gauge the impacts of their decisions on other areas of the Coast Guard or at best only at a superficial level. As a result of these organizational decision-making barriers, personnel decisions often resulted in adverse effects on the entire system.
For example, it was policy that after each promotion an employee would be moved to another duty location to fill a position that required a more experienced person. When an employee was moved to fill a vacancy, a second employee had to be moved to replace the position vacated by the first employee. That continual replacement cycle caused many more moves than the Coast Guard desired and had a negative effect on unit continuity.
Using a Systems Thinking Methodology to address complex personnel issues was valuable because it produced an understanding within the Coast Guard that in complex systems there are “ebbs and flows.” Complex policy decisions that are made today may, in the short-term, produce negative effects on the system. Managers began to understand that the personnel issues were systems level problems which could be anticipated and if allowed would correct themselves in time. This mental preparation for expected short-term negative conditions made it possible to make insightful decisions to prepare for these conditions instead of being at the complete mercy of the system. The systems view of the personnel system helped the Coast Guard avoid making sudden, reactionary decisions after September 11, 2001. Using their systems view, the Coast Guard was able to show that one proposed aggressive growth strategy would hurt current mission effectiveness and compromise efforts to meet the new mission requirements (Using a Systems Thinking Approach to Examine Personnel Issues).