Abhinav Sinha

Systems Approach to Problem Solving

In Problem Solving, Systems Thinking on July 11, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Today’s problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that once created them.

-Albert Einstein

With that statement, one of the greatest thinkers of our century had made the strongest case for an approach that needed us to do more than trying to address the whole by merely stimulating its parts.

Before we take the discussion forward, it is important to debate on, what exactly do we call a problem?

A problem is decided by purposes. If let’s say I am hungry and desperately want to eat. I scan my refrigerator and find nothing. I have a problem. But if someone does not want to eat, having nothing in the refrigerator is not a problem.

In 2001, I did my summer internship at Machine shop of India’s largest passenger car maker. One of the deliverables, on which the manufacturing managers were evaluated upon, was the line-operation rate. This was shown as a percentage of operated hours to potential total operation hours.

Therefore there was a strong urge for the manufacturing managers sometimes to operate lines without schedule. As a trainee of the department, it seemed perfectly logical. If I were to get my promotions on the number of hours that my line was running, I would maximize that output, what may. It is only now that I realize that this may produce more than the demand and make excessive inventories. The excessive inventories may be a problem for general managers but were surely not defined as a negative marker in the appraisal sheet of the manufacturing manager. I now wonder, why?

If a purpose is different between managers, they see the identical situation in different ways. One may see a problem but the others may not see the problem.

Equifinality and Multifinality

It seems right to introduce two more tenets of Systems Thinking at this point in the discussion.  As defined by Wikipedia,

  • Equifinality – alternative ways of attaining the same objectives (convergence)
  • Multifinality – attaining alternative objectives from the same inputs (divergence)

As an example, using the tenet of ‘Multifinality’, a supermarket could be considered to be:

  • a ‘profit making system’ from the perspective of management and owners
  • a ‘distribution system’ from the perspective of the suppliers
  • an ‘employment system’ from the perspective of employees
  • a ‘materials supply system’ from the perspective of customers
  • a ‘social system’ from the perspective of local residents

What this really points to is the significance of understanding different ‘perspectives’ of all stakeholders of the problem. Some of whom may only be indirectly related.

Perspectives often represent the deep rooted belief systems of the individuals. Sometimes, a perspective may stem only from ignorance.

The problem solver’s perceptions and attitudes are an integral part of the problem situation.

In order to build on the concept of ‘Multifinality’ and to understand the importance of ‘perspectives’ in viewing the same situation differently, I recommend you click on the following case study that I picked from BBC Open University:


Traditional problem solving techniques and processes are, by and large linear and reductionist. They often focus on problem symptoms which results in short lived solutions with adverse unintended consequences down the track. They overlook complex, non-linear relationships that characterise most daily life situation that we encounter. 

In contrast, Systems approach to problem solving is a scientific approach that starts with the whole. It takes into account complex relationships as well as ‘soft’ variables like human emotions, motivation and behaviour e.g., morale, fear, frustration, recognition, resistance etc., thus providing a holistic approach to complex policy and social issues.

While I hope you will enjoy this journey through the perspectives of different individuals, I also leave you with another problem to solve.

Consider a set of nine dots, in the layout as represented here. 

The problem definition is as follows: Connect all the nine dots, by using four straight lines or less, without lifting the pen.

Post your results, if you are able to get through. In case not, I shall be happy to mail you the solution on your email id.

Happy Systems Thinking!

  1. As we see that different people have different perspectives of the system, unless or until we observe a system from outside, i.e without being a part of the system there is a good chance that we might end up observing some or a large number of components, variables, or relationships

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