The Dead Language of Systems Thinking

This year as a result of Dr. Deming, I had decided to dig into Systems Thinking more. I re-read The Fifth Discipline, which had been my introduction into Lean and Six Sigma.   Being a business owner, I did not have a problem looking at the whole or as it later became known as viewing the entire value stream. However, Systems Thinking through its theory is quite useful, in practically it served little purpose. I gravitated towards Lean and Theory of Constraints.

After starting this year with renewed energy for System Thinking, re-reading many old books and even dusting off some casual loop material, I started reaching out for the latest and greatest. My initial path took me through Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges by Otto Scharmer and Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society by Peter Senge, amazingly similar to CAP Do as explained by Joiner and Akao. This thought is being captured  in what I call the Lean Marketing  Conversation. Still working on that, as it coincides with the principles of Service Dominant Logic and the way I believe how value is created. Or I might say, co-created.

The next step of my journey took me towards some mapping where it can be done in clusters and around conversations. Which again solidifies the idea of the sales and marketing conversation and how it is dispersed between organizations. I am just about as excited as you can be, about research, and ready to take the deeper dive into Systems Thinking. What I need is human interaction to solidify my theory and see how practitioners are using this material.

I  link up with a few System Thinkers and join several Systems Thinking Groups on LinkedIn and started monitoring a few of the conversations.  I was uninspired by most conversations. It seemed that Systems Thinkers were more worried about solving  world hunger and telling everyone how it should be done from the 20K level. It was practically all theory. Finally, a question was asked how Systems Thinking and Lean are related. I wait for a few answers and chimed in when someone says Lean is just a set of tools. I say that is not so true even though Lean has a great toolbox, it is a little more than that. Roman

It was explained by more than one that Lean is a set of tools. I ask for a little evidence, and I am referred to 1986 Womack and Jones. I mention that, yes it favored the tools in 90s, but that was the age of process methodologies. I was asked for more evidence, and I mention that if you look at how Lean has matured through the years, or better yet observing just the progression from the original Toyota Way book (basically a tool book) to the Toyota Way material of today, you can see the progression of Lean. I ask how Systems Thinking has progressed and could someone name an organization that would call themselves a Systems Thinking Company. The reply was that everything was a system and that they deal in the social…blah blah world. I am given a link to a page to explain everything. The central theme of the page to include an outline was a value map, a tool. I asked why a tool was chosen to explain Systems Thinking.

The funny part was the moderator commented on how myopic this conversation was etc. I apologized and just said that I was there to learn about Systems Thinking and hoped I could still do so. After the moderator participates in the thread, there was a flood of others that joined in and the conversation was civil for a while till the original Lean bashing returned. I even read that Dr. Deming held an isolated view of Systems Thinking. I finally left the group and un-Linked a few contacts from my profile. The group seems highly knowledgeable, but they came across to me as an elitist group protecting their territory.

I bash Lean for being to supply-side orientated all the time. I bash Lean for being tool-happy. I can understand others doing it and thinking that way. What I could not accept in the conversation was the elitism that occurred and the failure to be willing to discuss the original question, the similarities. Instead, it continued as another onslaught of what I have called Lean bashing. I left the conversation and the group.

In summary, I believe that all systems are very similar. The difference from DMAIC to PDCA to Casual Loops are not all that different. The difference is the path we take to get there and the people we align ourselves with to accomplish it. It is a shame we spend so much time bashing the other methods. Lean happens to be a popular business model at this time. For Systems Thinkers to say that it is a tool box, it appears to me that they are internalized in their own thinking. They even cited ASQ as adding Systems Thinking to the Lean body of knowledge. What they failed to realize, it was being added to the Lean body of knowledge, not the other way around.

I left thinking that Systems Thinking may be a dead language. It is seldom spoken in business and only a few study it.  It may be the basis and important part of how we must view things, but it has been swallowed up in the dialect of other methodologies. It reminds of the Latin language. Latin is an important part of most Mediterranean languages, but it is not spoken. Its usefulness has passed.

4 thoughts on “The Dead Language of Systems Thinking”

  1. I share your believe that all systems are similar.I also believe that they are all versions of the Deming/Shewhart Plan/Do/Check/Act cycle.Is it possible that “systems” as outlined by Deming cannot work as a result of the excess focus on Quarterly profits and the lack of focus on cooperation,optimization?
    Has the Deming chain that was predicted to end in Jobs and Jobs been abondoned?
    Without much anlysis,I believe that Systems still play a greater role in Japan because of greater optimization ,cooperation education and training . People relationships ,caring and giving every individual the opportunity to find meaning and joy in the work place is required. Systems without greater people involvement and engagement is like living a life that is wealthy but lacking in love.

  2. Yes, we would be better off stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. Your comment maybe the 20K look at my post. However, we must look at the system but act locally. When we stay at the global level little gets accomplished. – Brian Joiner said this in a recent podcast. Brian stepped away from the quality field to improve the environment at a local level.

    I think Lean acts in a similar way in respect to systems. With the Systems Thinking view embedded in a culture such as Lean (there certainly can be others) great things can happen. However, Systems Thinking on its own may only lead to more thoughts and little action. It is the doing that is important, the people thing you talked about.

  3. I share somehow your experience, and also your concern about System Thinking having become a sect of some kind, closed in their own preaching. On the other side though, I think you are missing an important perspective, which clearly diversify Lean Thinking from System Thinking. Let me try to explain myself…

    So System Thinking was starting from the ideology set already by Taylor with Scientific Management that “In the past the man was first… in the future the system will be first…”. The whole focus, even if Taylor was pretty clear about the importance of having the right people, shifted mainly on the system. The perspective though, it is radically different, from what I understand: in System Thinking you try to improve a system by modelling/imaging its ideal state in the future, making a gap analysis exposing what you need to change in order to get there, from where you stand now… and finally you plan the improvement.

    According to Lean thinking though, and here I am going back to the origin of the TPS from Taiichi Ohno, and the basics of the 3Ms (Muri, Mura, Muda). The believing in auto-nomation (automation with the human touch) was stemming from the fundamental goal of allowing, somehow also requiring, every employee into a factory to identify, stop-the-chain, and remove any source of disfunction detected, in the form of Muri (overburden), Mura (uneven flow) or Muda (wastful activity). In its original mentality the Lean process improvement doesn’t start from a pictured ideal state in the future, but from the present, measurable reality. This type of thinking is more resilient to complex environment as it is emergent and adaptive, while the System Thinking type of improvement is based on hypothesis and assumptions, such as that the ideal state is reachable. By doing so, not only you end up precluding possible innovations, but also you set all the risk on a defined path.

    So while both approach advocate from a system perspective similar practices, as you correctly say in your post, they actually do not share the principles… which in my experience has always made a lot of difference :-)

    Thanks for sharing

  4. Thanks for the comments Andrea,

    I could replace your description of Systems Thinking in the 2nd paragraph with the words Lean and I would not think anyone would see a difference. Why do we limit the origin of Lean to TPS? Would the origin not be through Taylor via Shewart via Deming via TPS. The iterative practice of PDCA forms the culture of Lean which is based on hypothesis and assumptions. The main difference between the two is the limitation “System Thinkers” place upon Lean to justify their own thinking. Lean Thinkers embrace Systems Thinking, System Thinkers seek to limit Lean. As a result, I believe Systems Thinkers have created an isolated point of view.

    Lean has evolved, moving away from the “tools” and toward the recognition of people as the real instruments (enablers) of change and improvement. Not in the sense of blaming people but in the sense that people make the difference. Referencing the term Lean and describing Lean Manufacturing takes a limited perspective of what Lean has accomplished in the last decade. The improvements in innovation, healthcare, software, services, etc that are directly Lean related offer a great deal of evidence that System Thinkers choose to ignore. Instead, they prefer to take an empirical view and reference 100 and 30 year practices to solidify their position.

    If we deal with present, we find Lean as the best instrument of business change that exist. The limiting factors are not embedded in Lean rather embedded in other cultures fighting to preserve their identity. I am not saying that Lean is the only instrument and best in every situation. However, it is a good place to start and leave your own principles and practices develop.

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