A different view of a Lean organisation using systems thinking
Systems thinking can be used when you want to see the world in a different way, or see the world from a different perspective. Before you begin to wonder how to use systems thinking in your business having an understanding what a system is a good idea. The word system is everywhere but the systems idea involves complexity that needs some explaining.
Systems thinking first premise is that every phenomena can described as a system. This might sound far fetching or difficult to believe if you have just stumbled on the idea of systems thinking for the first time. So you can for a moment engage in a little thought exercise. Beginning with reading Johnson et al. (1964, p. 367) well-defined definition to give some clarity to this exercise, a system is “an organized or complex whole; an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole”. Taking this definition on board, if you stop for a moment and have a look around you and you will see that systems are everywhere. More than likely you are reading this on a computer system, or a ISO or Android phone system, or printed it out and all of these are examples of artificial man made systems. You are using your eyes and they are your vision system which is part of your body which in turn is a human system, your awareness that you are reading is a system and even the words, concepts, language and knowledge that is being transferred are all types of systems. You might be reading this in work or at home both of which are types of organisation which are social systems. As you look out your window you see a bird, which is an animal system, you gaze into the sky and cosmos both are physical systems. You hear a noise using your hearing system part of your human system, the noise comes from your heating system this is artificial closed system, turning on because you have it set on a timer to come on at this time every day therefore can be described as a clockwork system. Your teenage daughter who is also a human system come in to ask for help as she is part of your social system, with her maths, which is a conceptual system, the maths is part of her homework which is a learning system. She is look for help to get a good grade because she has been promised, by you, tickets, as a control system, to her favourite band if she does well in the summer test, you are trying to control her behaviour using a reward system.
So what’s the big deal if systems are everywhere? The important thing is that once you start to see systems in everything, in every object, in every subject around you in the world you begin to realise that every system is part of a bigger system and each are connected in obvious but also weird and unseen ways. What you do as a person, and what your organisation does has an effect on other systems. This is called a system of systems.
The interrelatedness is the next premise of systems thinking. This is really useful and helpful concept because enables you to see relationships between parts that a person typically might miss. To get your head around this a good place to start is with systems theory which concepts and language has travelled to management from biology. Three of the most accessible concepts are the concepts of wholeness, interactions and complexity. Basically every system has at least two parts that make up a whole and this is the idea of wholeness. Each part of the system is related in some way to each other part, this is the idea of interaction. The whole can’t be reduced to the sum of the parts and the interactions are not simple and this means that the system has complexity.
The final systems thinking premise is how it changes how you see your business. To explain this another very relevant system concept can be utilised, that is that some systems are open and other systems are closed. It is possible that an organisation can be conceptualised as a closed system which is closed to its environment or as an open system that influences and is influenced by its environment.
If you think that your business is a closed system you are making some fundamental assumptions. First, you think that you can control the system and its parts. Second, only the system has a purpose, suggesting that the part do not have individual purpose. Third, only some of the parts are going to influence the whole system therefore you can change some parts and have no consequences. Four, the system will be able to be stable and steady in its environment. In essence if think that your business is a closed system you believe that you can completely control every aspect, including your people, and tweak the business to perform as you wish.
On the other hand if you think that your business is an open system the assumptions that you make are very different. First, the open nature of your business means it is influence by other systems and that every system is part of a bigger system. Second, the managers can’t control every aspect and part of the business as the business is not stable but can adapt and change to survive. Third, every part of the business can affect the whole business so changing one part will affect the whole. In essence if you think that your business is an open system you believe that your business is part of a bigger picture and while you can’t control the business you can influence how it adapts and changes and this means look how the whole works and not just the individual the parts.