Abhinav Sinha

Systems Thinking – A Beginner’s Quest

In Systems Thinking on June 28, 2010 at 6:42 am

I have been aware of this term ‘Systems’ for a little over eight years now. My college where I did my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering, has been offering Masters program in ‘Engineering Systems’ for a very long time. Without much diligence or delibration, the word continued to represent something complex and arcane, in my mind.

For a long time I continued to believe that this was a concpet fit for only those pursuing interests in academics, research or the likes. It was not untill very recently, that I was exposed to the immense transformational attributes and limitless possibilities of ‘Systems Thinking’, in matters that concerns our day to day living.

The ideas that Systems thinking propogates are not far fetched at all. In fact, it potentially touches and influence everything around us. The corporate lives we lead or the relationships we live in, could just be the examples of the fields where systems thinking can contributes.

So, what is systems thinking?

Rather than a conventional definition, I would like to set the bearings rolling with an appropriate example of what ‘lack of systems thinking’ is. Consider this,

Have we not come across a similar situation as in this cartoon, which is of course symbolic. It is not infrequent when you will find people giving more importance and attention to the ‘parts’ that they alone are concerned with, while not realising that their ‘part’ is indeed a part of a larger system.

The peils of failing to adopt a ‘systems view’ in this case are obvious. The boat will sink, inevitably.

Since you would have realised what lack of ‘systems thinking’ is, a more conventional definition could be given like this, “Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things”

‘Systems Thinking’ vs ‘Analysis’

Our traditional education system and methods of scintific enquiry are both biased towards conventional approach of problem solving, which is by ‘analysis’. By definition, ‘analysis’ is the separation of an intellectual or material whole into its constituent parts for individual study. In this sense and spirit, ‘Systems thinking’ is in sharp contrast and possibly an opposite of Analysis.

While analysis favours, breaking down a whole into fundamental parts for study or identifying the root cause of a problem, ‘Systems thinking’ proposes study of parts not in isolation but in seamless interconnectedness with others and with the whole. ‘Systems thinking’ propogates that the whole is not merely the sum of parts, but much more.

Systems thinking works by expanding its view to take into account larger and larger number of interactions as an issue is being studied. This results in sometimes strikingly different conclusions than those returned by traditional forms of analysis.

Let me try to illustrate the difference in approach with an example. Let us consider a scenario where an insect is eating up and damaging the crops. The traditional analytical response to this seemingly simple problem would be to spray the crop with a pesticide designed to kill the insect.

The conventional insecticides have a limited effectiveness, besides they cause irreversible damage through water and soil pollution. Let us for a moment assume a perfect pesticide that kills the targeted insect without causing much side effects on air, water or soil. Have we addressed the problem in hand?

 There is no doubt, that such a spray would partially and temporarily improve the condition of the crop and reduce damage. Unfortunately, this is only a part of the whole. What happens is is in the following years the problem of the crop damage gets worse and the pesticide that formally seemd to work, is not effective any more.

This is because the insect eating the crops initially, was controlling the population of another insect, either by preying on it or competining with it. When the pesticides kills the insects that were eating the crops, it eliminates the control that those insects were applying on population of the other insects. This leads to the population of these other insects to explode, causing continued and more severe damage than the insects killed by the pesticide.

Our analytical approach sorted the problem in shorter run, but indeed aggravated in the longer frame of reference. With this picture in mind, now consider an alternate method known as ‘Integrated Pest Management’, that controls the insects eating the crop by introducing more of its predators in the area. This approach has proven to be effective by MIT, the National Academy of Sciences and others.

In the process, we can eliminate running the risk of soil and water pollution and toxication of our edibles in the long run.

To keep my introductory article simple, I shall not bring in any more depth as of now but shall conclude with another peep into what lack of ‘systems thinking’, mean for all of us!

My idea behind setting up this blog, is to do my bit in propogating this unique approach, and to setup a platform where like minded individuals express and share there views, doubts or concerns about the systems view of the world around us. I do not claim a mastery of any sorts in the concepts or field of systems thinking.

This blog is an outcome of my quest for a deeper understanding. While I shall continue to add more articles, it will be of great pleasure to find your participation and interest. Follow this blog, share your views, express your feedback or bring in new topics.

We can together turn this into a platform for learning and sharing together.

Looking forward to hear from you.

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  1. indeed,wants to be updated with systems thinking for finding a complete solutions to a problem

  2. Of course, the population of the non-targets pests may swell up and adversally affect the crop, but in my opinion the following is a more common cause of resistance break down:
    The resistance in the target pest often develops due to repeated use of site-specific pesticides. On this very account the site-specific pesticides are normally applied in alternation/combination with the pesticides that are broadspectrum in nature. This technique helps to prolong the useful life of the molecules/pesticides that are highly prone to the resistance development problem.

  3. In my previous reply of Sept 15, 2010, (para 1) “non-targets” may be read as “non-target” and “resistance break down” as “resistance build-up”, please.

  4. Dear Abhinav,
    Can you suggest any methodology through which one can arrive to find a solution of a
    problem and which does not occur again. Is it a close to quality circles propogated by Ja
    panese?

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