Systems Thinking – An Old Approach to Today’s Problems



For the past several months, it seems that the world has descended into chaos; in February, West Africa began to experience the worst Ebola outbreak in history, killing close to 1,200 people. On March 21, Russia formally annexed Crimea, which drew economic sanctions from the United States. In April, 276 women and young girls were abducted and held hostage in Nigeria. As the world was watching Germany win the 2014 FIFA World Cup, a Sunni militant group called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS) began an offensive in northern Iraq. Early in July, tensions increased between Israel and Hamas following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. In August, America became divided after the shooting of a black teenager by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the midst of all this, one has to ask, “Where are our leaders?” Now, these are international events and no one person can respond to these crises, but when everything goes to hell that is when you can see what kind of leaders you have. And I for one am not the least bit confident in their ability. It seems that every “solution” that comes from Washington only gives rise to a dozen more problems. I believe it is time for a new way of thinking. And that new way of thinking can come from listening to those who came before us.

For those in the business world, specifically operations, W. Edwards Deming and Dr. Russell Ackoff are legends. William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant. Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative, high quality products, and for its economic power. He is regarded as having more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Dr. Russell Ackoff (February 12, 1919 – October 29, 2009) was an American organizational theorist, consultant, and a Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Ackoff was a pioneer in the field of operations research and management science. Together, these two titans developed Systems Thinking.

Most of you are probably wondering what an old management theory, that two dead guys came up with, has to do with today’s politics and global crises. Allow me to first explain what a system is. Deming’s definition of a system is “two or more parts that work together to accomplish a shared aim.” The key point is “working together” or interacting. We actually live in and are surrounded by systems every day; hospitals, schools, cars, families and government agencies.

Some systems are mechanical, like cars and computers. Other systems are biological, like plants and human bodies. Still other systems are mental and theoretical, like mathematics and philosophy. The most complex systems are social, such as families, sports teams, organizations and nations. Dr. Ackoff gives a perfect example of a system in this every day example:
When you have a headache, what do you do? Do you immediately go to the doctor and ask for brain surgery so you can take care of the problem at its source? Of course not, because we all know from biology that the body is a system. You simply take a pain bill, which goes to your stomach, is dissolved, absorbed, and then carried to the pain center in the brain, which in turn takes care of your headache.

This is Systems Thinking at work. By understanding the interaction of the parts of the system, rather than just the parts, you are able to solve your problem.

By looking at social systems as a whole you become aware of a system’s hidden connections and interaction. In the case of the Ebola outbreak, everyone is demanding a cure be found to stop this disaster. Cures take years and years to find, and though it is important to find one for this horrible virus, if any of the research is rushed, it could make the situation much worse. If you look at the Ebola outbreak as part of a system, rather than a problem, you can see hidden connections and interactions. Burial traditions in that part of the world are such that they demand extensive handling of a body. Washing, dressing and even positioning the body in the grave are all extremely important. When trying to prevent an epidemic, the last thing you want to do is be handing dead bodies (Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids). By learning more health conscious ways to care for their dead, people will be much less likely to contract the disease, which would allow more time to find a cure.

To quote W. Edward Demming, “What we need to do is learn to work in the system, by which I mean that everybody, every team, every platform, every division, every component is there, not for individual competitive profit or recognition, but for contribution to the system as a whole on a win-win basis.” The men and women in Washington would do well to study Systems Thinking, instead of just focusing on the problem in front of them. A perfect example of this is what is happening in the “War on Drugs.”
The “War on Drugs” is a term applied to the prohibition of drugs, military aid, and military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. This campaign includes a set of drug policies that are intended to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of what participating governments and the UN define as illegal psychoactive drugs. The term was popularized by the media in 1971, after United States President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one”. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the United States spends $51 billion annually on the War on Drugs.

In June 2011, a self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy released a critical report on the War on Drugs, declaring: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”

Now it is important to note that I am not saying legalize all drugs, in fact, I am extremely skeptical of any benefits that could come from legalizing a drug like Methamphetamine. I am saying that by trying to solve the problem in front of them (dangerous, addictive drugs), a dozen other problems came from their “solution” (drug gangs, costs to taxpayers, impact on growers, etc.). Removal of an error does not guarantee improvement. When you get rid of something you do not want, you do not necessarily get what you do want. You may get something you want a lot less.

I believe that the first step towards having better leaders in Washington is to get them to admit that they make mistakes. When was the last time an administration said they were wrong? Making mistakes is a process of learning and should be encouraged. Just don’t make the same mistake twice. Winston Churchill defined success as “advancing from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” The next step would be recognizing that no problem has an independent effect on reality i.e. Systems Thinking. Let’s stop putting up with the shortsightedness of our leaders and demand a clear vision for our country.

It is important for us to realize that the changing of an organization does not have to start at the top. It can start with you and me. I would highly encourage everyone to study Systems Thinking as the upcoming elections draw near. Is your candidate someone who simply looks at the problem in front of them or do they approach the problem as part of a system? Leaders who only focus on the problem in front of them try to solve it by dividing it into parts and America cannot afford to become anymore divided.