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Systems Questions February 18, 2011

Posted by wooddickinson in Change, consulting, Systems Thinking.
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Systems Thinking does take work!

COMMENT FROM BLOG POST: System is often sensitive to events around itself and people handling it. To build a system, the future needs to be presumed or projected with all sorts of possible trajectories, I would like to ask you some questions regarding the same:

a) Is it possible to anticipate such trajectories?
b) Since we break the systems into various sub-systems, how are some properties obsolete to the other connected systems while effective to systems aligned much further in the same system as sub-systems? Is feedback the part we are considering or the carry-forward mechanism the reason behind it?

Some time back I received this comment and I’d like to explore it a bit.  To be clear systems are part of the natural order of things.  The solar system, the life cycle of organisms, atomic structure and so on.  All these things and really everything is comprised of some sort of systemic force.

There are times we are fully aware of this.  Say the gravitational system as described by Sir Isaac  Newton.  This system was used to get us to and from the moon.  Now man made organizations are structures that we put together and the truth is, we may not do a very good job.  If we don’t acknowledge systems then we are working blind and can’t even begin to guess the outcome. But we try.

Even simple things like a teenager starting a lawn mowing venture to make money for college contains systems.  One of the primary drivers behind systems is the feedback loop.  If the boy cuts the grass well but never trims around the trees, he may look at the grass and think, “Job well done.” The client on the other hand looks at the whole yard and notices right away the grass around the trees hans’t been trimmed.  He thinks, “Sloppy and lazy. I need a new boy to cut the grass.” What we now have is a closed system.

One good explanation of this idea is:

“A system, then, is a set of things that affect one another within an environment and form a larger pattern that is different from any of the parts. The fundamental systems-interactive paradigm of organizational analysis features the continual stages of input, throughput (processing), and output, which demonstrate the concept of openness/closedness. A closed system does not interact with its environment. It does not take in information and therefore is likely to atrophy, that is to vanish. An open system receives information, which it uses to interact dynamically with its environment. Openness increases its likelihood to survive and prosper. Several system characteristics are: wholeness and interdependence (the whole is more than the sum of all parts), correlations, perceiving causes, chain of influence, hierarchy, supra-systems and subsystems, self-regulation and control, goal-oriented, interchange with the environment, inputs/outputs, the need for balance/homeostasis, change and adaptability (morphogenesis) and equifinality: there are various ways to achieve goals. Different types of networks are: line, commune, hierarchy and dictator networks. Communication in this perspective can be seen as an integrated process – not as an isolated event.” – cited from UNIVERSITY OF TWENTE (http://www.utwente.nl/en)

Simply if the boy doesn’t open up his lawn mowing system to include a feedback loop that he can access entropy will claim his business and he will be looking for another way to make money.  This would be a rather simple system, something like this:

This is a closed system that doesn’t allow any feedback so after time the homeowner will get tiered of the bad job and fire the boy. The boy’s business collapses.

Now to ignore that this system exists is fatal so one element needs to be added to save it

With the feedback element added the boy asks for feedback from the client before he goes home. The owner says the trimming needs to be done and the boy makes adjustments to the system and the systems grows and stays alive.

Now this is a simple example but it is a starting point. This theory is useful in business to family relationships. Map the system and you can see where problems are then add the proper feedback loops to allow correction to the system.

So to answer the first question about predictability, yes you can gauge the result of certain process by mapping the system BEFORE you start and check it constantly for errors and keep correcting so the feedback remains useful. Harley Davidson has a very specific process for chroming it’s parts. This process must be mapped out so feedback can come at the critical time to avoid putting faulty parks on a bike. It can also indicate changes that need to be made to the process so it expands and becomes more effective and cost efficient.

As to the second question, yes complex systems may have many various subsystems.  Each part must add back to the whole so if a certain subsystem seems to be failing one possibility is to end that part of the process or redesign the system to incorporate that subsystem somewhere else. You can’t just let a subsystem fail and ignore it. One of the primary reason to use systems thinking is so you have feedback loops in place to help guide the people working the system and allow a natural change process to take place.

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