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Idea Seeds #16 – Problem Solving - Systems Thinking

Updated on February 6, 2017

What is a System?

“So, what is a system? A system is a set of things - people, cells, molecules, or whatever - interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.” (Donella H. Meadows)

Making sense of the World

In keeping with one of Friedrich Engels’s (18201895) beliefs: "Theory without practice is sterile while practice without theory is blind", the main focus in these articles has been on ‘Problem solving’ and the need for a basic understanding of how and why the world, and the things in it, work and where this knowledge can be used in practice. However we can’t possibly become experts in every subject so what can we do to make sense of the world around us in all its complexity? One answer is to use a ‘Systems Thinking' approach. Most of us gather our knowledge in bits and pieces but lack the tools to tie these chunks together to make a coherent whole. A ‘systems’ approach provides the tools to do this in an efficient and effective way. Taking the time to study this way of thinking has resulted in another fantastic ‘Return on the Investment’ (‘ROI’) for me.


Understanding the Rules

But as they say: “You cannot play the game properly until you have understood the rules and all the words that make up the rules,” so here are some key words that will help to make this concept easier to grasp. So, I suggest you get the blank slips out, make a category slip ‘Systems Thinking’ and start writing

  • ‘System’: a collection of ‘parts’ that ‘interact’ with each other to function as a’ whole’.
  • ‘Analysis’: the ‘breaking down’ of a system into its ‘parts’.
  • ‘Synthesis’: the ‘combining’ of ‘parts’ into a ‘whole’.
  • ‘Elements’: ‘Parts’ are normally referred to as ‘elements’ in ‘systems' jargon.


Analytical Method

‘Analytical method’ (‘Analysis’) involves a three step process. Step one; take the thing that you wish to understand apart. Step two; analyse and get to understand the behaviour of each of the ‘elements’ taken separately. Step three; aggregate the understanding of the individual ‘elements’ to understand the ‘whole’.

The following example showing the first two steps in the analysis of the systems in a human body should make this clear.

Body Systems

  • Skeletal system: Bones and joints; the framework which supports the body and around which it’s is formed.
  • Muscular system: Muscles connected by tendons to the bones move the limbs.
  • Nervous system: Brain, spinal cord and nerves form the body's control centre and communication network. They allow signals to be sent to, and received from, all the parts of the body.
  • Respiratory system: The nose, windpipe, lungs and diaphragm allow breathing and the transfer of oxygen into the blood and the removal of carbon dioxide from it.


I could go on as above and include the

  • Circulatory system,
  • the Digestive system,
  • the Urinary system,
  • the Reproductive system

and many more and of course go into much greater detail but feel sure the ‘process’ is clear, so will stop here.


The Universe as Machine

Isaac Newton likened the Universe to a machine, one in which everything occurred in accordance with ‘natural law’ and therefore if one understood the ‘elements’ in the machine and the ‘law’ that determined the behaviour of each of the ‘elements’ then one would have a complete understanding of the machine.

This proved insufficient and the focus of thinking changed from machine to system. It was found that a system could not be understood by analysis alone and a new way of thinking called ‘synthetic thinking’ was added.

Synthetic Thinking

‘Synthetic thinking’ (‘Synthesis’) is exactly opposite to the ‘analytical method’ described above and again requires a three step process. Step one; define a containing ‘whole’ (the system) of which the thing to be explained is a part. Step two; explain the behaviour of the containing ‘whole’. Step three; explain the behaviour or properties of the thing to be explained in terms of its roles or functions within its containing ‘whole’.


Baking Bread

Example: Thermostat to control the temperature in an oven for baking bread.

Step one; define the containing ‘whole’: The oven. Step two; explain the behaviour or properties of the containing ‘whole’: The purpose of a baking oven is to bake bread. The baking of bread requires the careful control of the temperature in the oven to ensure that the dough is properly cooked but not burnt. The heat is produced by an electrical element in the oven. When it is switched on it causes the temperature in the oven to rise. Step three; explain the behaviour or properties of the thing to be explained in terms of its roles or functions within its containing ‘whole’: The thermostat controls the temperature in the oven by monitoring the temperature of the air in the oven and when the temperature rises to a level above that desired it switches the heating element off. When the temperature drops to below the desired level the thermostat turns the element on. The temperature in the oven is thus controlled to remain within a specified temperature range.


‘Analysis’ yields the ‘information’ that we process and convert into ‘knowledge’. ‘Synthesis’ yields the ‘understanding’ and together they form the basis of ‘Systems thinking’. It provides a path to a better understanding of how mother-nature and humans work and helps us establish relationships between systems and their parts. It helps to remove our blinkers and to get to grips with the ‘big picture’ connections in large complex systems. Real life is lived in a complex world system where all the subsystems overlap and affect each other. When dealing with subsystems, a common mistake is to deal with them in isolation; as if they didn’t connect with anything else. Resist from falling into this trap as it almost always results in unexpected or unanticipated responses in adjacent subsystems. I liken this to prodding a jelly. The volume of jelly is fixed so no matter where you prod it; it has to bulge out somewhere else. Predicting where the bulge is going to occur, and it is going to occur, is very difficult but it can be made easier if a ‘systems’ approach is adopted.


The Containing Whole

Try using the ‘synthetic thinking’ approach to explain (a) a bicycle and (b) a university. You will quickly see that defining the containing whole (the system) of which the thing to be explained is a part is, more often than not, a great deal more difficult than the ‘oven’ in the above example. What sort of containing ‘whole’ would you describe for yourself? Is it your family, your society, your country, the world, your belief system, or something else? I leave you to ponder the containing whole for a bicycle, a university, and yourself.


Draper L Kauffman’s book ‘Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking’

Paul Parks, State Secretary of Education, Massachusetts USA had this to say about Draper L Kauffman’s book ‘Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking’:

“If you know nothing about Systems Theory, this book could whack you on the side of the head. In six short chapters it gives you a comprehensive overview of ‘Systems Thinking’. It is studded with amazing, real life examples of the concepts at work in the world.”

It certainly whacked my father on the head and he believes it should be made compulsory reading at school for every school going teenager. Do yourself a favour and download a PDF copy and see whether it whacks you too. Google the following: ‘Draper L. Kauffman Jnr, System one: an introduction to systems thinking’ to find a copy. If it whacks you too, please spread the word.

Feedback is the Key to 'Systems Thinking'

Understanding feedback is the key to ‘Systems Thinking’. There are two types of feedback loops; ‘negative feedback loops’ and ‘positive feedback loops’. The easiest way to learn about feedback is by looking at examples. I have just taken you through the thermostat-oven example but made no mention about feedback. It involves a ‘negative feedback loop’; the thermostat prevents (‘negates’) the temperature in the oven from moving out of a preset range. Diagrams provide a shortcut solution to help us to ’visualize’ the ‘system’ and the ‘feedback loops’. Here is the diagram for the thermostat-oven example. Following the arrows, the diagram tells us that the oven affects the air temperature, the air temperature affects the thermostat, and the thermostat affects the oven. The negative feedback loop tells that changes are ‘negated’; a rise in temperature will be followed by a drop in temperature and the drop will be followed by a rise. This cycle will repeat until the oven is turned off.

A Positive Feedback Loop

Getting ‘compound interest’ on saved money is a great ‘money amplifier’. Again following the arrows around a ‘positive feedback loop’ shows how this happens. Interest accrues on the money in the savings account that is then reinvested adding to the amount in the account. With each additional trip round the loop a larger and larger amount is added.

Rabbits, Foxes and the Height of the Grass

Here is a more complex example: The numbers of foxes and rabbits that inhabit an island vary depending on the height of the grass. When the grass is tall the foxes have difficulty in seeing the rabbits resulting in more deaths than births in the fox population. The rabbits however have plenty of food so there are more births than deaths in the rabbit population. More rabbits require more food so the grass suffers and its height goes down allowing the foxes to see their food so the rabbit populations starts decreasing while the fox population starts increasing. With fewer rabbits, the grass has a chance to recover again hiding the rabbits from the foxes and the whole cycle starts over again. Try making a diagram to show this interaction.

Other factors also play a part as can be seen in the adjacent diagram that shows how they impact on the rabbit population. It has a positive and a negative loop. With lots of space and lots of food the birth rate goes up, births increase and the rabbit population increases. With little space and little food the death rate increases resulting in more deaths so the rabbit population decreases. If there are large numbers of predators the death rate goes up and the rabbit population goes down. When the space per rabbit decreases, stress levels and disease increase and the rabbit population will again decrease.

Do Yourself a Favour

Do yourself a favour and download a copy of Draper Kauffman’s 44 page booklet. It will change the way you view the world. Don’t forget to look through this article again to make sure you have made slips for each of the ‘idea seeds’ and filed and cross-referenced them properly.


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