Thursday, September 18, 2014

Systems thinking for problem solving

A system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs. The processing is performed by the subsystems. Super systems are other systems in environment of which the survival of the focal system is dependent. Boundaries are the part of the system through which inputs and outputs must pass, during which exchanges between systems and with their environment reflect a mutually interactive process. The concept of boundary implies a hierarchy of systems in which there is both separateness and connectedness. All systems operate in an environment of cause and effect. Systems science provides a means of analysing and understanding complex processes based on a few basic principles. According to Ludwig Van Bertalanffy (1968), the founder of the systems theory, a system is ‘a set of elements in interaction’. Some examples of systems include scientific, organizational, personal and public systems. Systems are wholes which cannot be understood through analysis. Synthesis is a prerequisite for the systems thinking. Systems thinking places high value on understanding contexts and looking for connections between the parts, actors and processes of the system. Ludwig Van Bertalanffy, father of systems thinking said, “In one way or another we are forced to deal with complexities, with ‘wholes’ or ‘systems’ in all fields of knowledge. This implies a basic reorientation in scientific thinking.” Stephen Haines also said, “The systems thinking approach is an absolute necessity to succeed in today’s complex world.”
The term ‘system’ comes from a Greek word systema meaning ‘whole compounded of several parts or members’ or in the literary sense ‘composition.’ System means ‘something to look at.’ A system is constituted by its elements that is, all the parts that make up the whole; the links between the parts, that is the processes and interrelationships that hold the parts together in view of the whole; its boundary, that is , the limit that determines what is inside and outside a system.

Systems defined...

Systems are made up of a set of components that work together for the overall objectives of the whole (outputs).“A system is a set of things –people, cells, molecules-interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time” (Donella Meadows). As a system develops, it generates pattern of behaviour due to the connections between elements in an organized fashion.


Systems theory

Systems theory was proposed in the 1940s by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanfy (General systems theory 1968) furthered by Ross Ashby (Introduction to Cybernatics 1956). Systems theory can be defined as a set of unifying principles about the organization and functioning of systems. Systems theory provides an analytical framework for viewing an organization in general.

Systems concept

Systems are defined as meaningful wholes that are maintained by the interaction of their parts (Laszlo 1972). System can also be defined as “a set of interacting or interdependent system components forming an integrated whole (Lidell and Scott 1940). A system is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit. All systems are composed of inter-connected parts. A change to any part or connection affects the entire system. The structure of a system determines its behaviour. “Structure produces behaviour.” To understand a systems’ gross behaviour, it is essential to understand its structure. The change in the structure of a system effects change in its gross behaviour. System behaviour is an emergent phenomenon – how a system behaves cannot be determined by inspection of its part or structure. Feedback loops control a system’s major dynamic behaviour. Every part of a system is involved in one or more feedback loops. Systems have more feedback loops than parts. Feedback loops are the main reason, a system’s behaviour is emergent.

Broad types of systems

Natural systems –e.g. forests, human body.
Engineered or designed systems –e.g. computer, car.
Purposeful or human –activity systems-e.g. hospitals, prisons, schools.

Systems nature (Fredrich Hegel 1770-1831)

1.       The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
2.       The whole defines the nature of the parts.
3.       The parts cannot be understood by studying the whole.
4.       The parts are dynamically interrelated or interdependent.

System components

A system must consist of 3 kinds of things: elements (things), interconnections (processes) and a function (purpose). A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in such a way that achieves something. A tree is a system and a forest is a larger system that encompasses subsystems of trees and animals. The interconnections in the tree system are the physical flows (e.g., water) and the chemical reactions that govern the tree’s metabolic processes. The interconnections or purposes are critically important in a system. Changing relationships usually changes system behaviour. System behaviour operates through feedback loops.

Systems thinking – ‘thinking about systems’

A system thinking is the ability to understand interactions and relationships in complex dynamic systems. A system thinking focuses on relationships, connectedness, multiple outcomes, holism and boundaries, the environment, the larger system and feedback. A system thinking helps to view systems from a broad perspective that includes seeing overall structures, patterns and cycles in systems and context. A system thinking is a superior approach in trying to understand the world’s complexity.

Systems characteristics

1. A system is a collection of interacting parts. Every system is a part of some larger system. Behaviour of any part is influenced by interaction with other parts. Systems can be represented in abstract networks of relations between components.
2. A system boundary defines the set of parts that comprise a system. A system may interact with things outside of its boundary. External interaction is less influential of the system behaviour than internal interaction. Behaviour is understood by examining the entire system, not individual parts.
3. Systems are organized in structural and functional hierarchies.
4. Systems exhibit several of kinds and levels of complexity.
5. Systems have dynamic processes on one or more time scales.
6. Systems emerge from proto-systems (unorganized, not complex) and evolve over time to greater organization and complexity.
7. Systems can encode knowledge and receive and send information.
8. Systems evolve internal regulation subsystems to achieve stability.
9. Systems can contain models of other systems.
10. Sufficiently complex, adaptive systems can contain models of themselves (brain/ mental models).
11. Systems can be understood – science as the building of models.
12. Systems can be improved – Engineering as an evolutionary process.

Systems understanding

Understanding of system is achieved through identification, modelling and analysis of relationships and interactions among the parts of a system. System modelling is performed by representing the parts of a system and interactions among those parts. In reality, a system consists of many feedback loops and many interactions among those loops. It is that total systems view that helps to achieve depth of understanding and real insight into the behaviours of complex systems.

Systems thinking rules (minimalist concept theory, MCT)

Distinction making – All thinking is distinction making. Distinction making is autonomic – one constantly makes distinctions all of the time. It is the making of differentiation between the identity of concepts and between what is internal and what is external to the boundaries of the concept.
Interrelating – It is the process of interlinking one concept to another by identifying reciprocal causes and effects.
Organizing systems – It is the process of splitting / lumping concepts into larger wholes or smaller parts and
Perspective taking – It is the process of reorienting a system of concepts by determining the focal point from which observation occurs by attributing to a point in the system, a view of the other objects in the system (e.g., point of view).

System thinking skills (Assaraf and Orion 2005)

1.       The ability to identify the components of a system and processes within the system.
2.       The ability to identify the relationships among the systems’ components.
3.       The ability to identify dynamic relationships within the system.
4.       The ability to organize the system’s components and processes within a framework of relationships (e.g.,chain, circle, network).
5.       The ability to understand the cyclic nature of systems.
6.       Understanding the hidden dimensions of the system.
7.       The ability to make generalizations.
8.       Thinking temporally: retrospection and prediction.

Systems thinking process

1. List as many elements as possible. Analytical thinking breaks things apart in stages. Systems thinking groups things together in stages.
2. Group the elements into sub-themes.
3. Find the central theme – the common theme across the sub-themes.
Systems thinking benefits
1. A conceptual framework to think strategically and a way to look at a complex issue in multiple perspectives.
2. A way to acquire new knowledge more easily because basic rules remain the same from system to system.
3. A better way to integrate new ideas within the systems context and dynamics.
4. A clearer way to see, understand and assess what is going on in an organization or in any system. Complex problems become easier to understand as do the interrelationships and the multiple causes and effects.
5. A new and better way to design solutions, create strategies, take decisions and solve problems.
                  Systems thinking simplifies complexity.

Quote for reflection
"When we live in a system, we absorb a system and
  think in a system."  - JAMES W.DOUGLASS.

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