What is Systems Thinking? | Aileron

Everything in a business – the people you hire, the vision you construct, the customers you serve, and more – is connected. Building a better understanding of the interrelated methods and processes at work is key to your ability to improve your business results. We call this approach “systems thinking.”

The Aileron definition of systems thinking is: the belief that everything in a business is connected to everything else. Using systems thinking means recognizing the interconnectedness of a business’s individual parts and their contributions to the larger system and its outcomes.

An Introduction to Systems Thinking

When you identify something that isn’t working in your business, what’s your first move? Create a new process? Hire someone new? If we take a systems-thinking approach to finding a solution, none of these is the answer. Each option jumps to a quick fix before identifying and understanding the ripple effects in the broader business system.

According to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does.” Deming estimated that 94 percent of the problems in a business are created by systems that aren’t functioning as needed, rather than individual actions.

“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” – Dr. W. Edwards Deming

A business’s organizational performance – part of our DOC System of Professional Management – is directly related to its ability to see how elements work together and what systems need to be adjusted.

Understanding organizational performance is more than simply looking at outcomes. Rather, it’s the ongoing work of monitoring and adjusting based on what’s actually happening in the organization to improve business results. Systems thinking enables that process.

Using Systems Thinking to Empower Your People

We repeatedly hear from business owners that their employees are a critical asset to the business. You likely work hard to create and maintain a culture that attracts and retains top talent, and applying systems thinking in management can support your existing efforts in several ways.

Make the Work Visible

A visual representation of systems with their processes and potential challenges allows both you and your team to understand current performance, identify areas for improvement, and create a common language for what’s working – or not. Applying a systems approach ensures everyone has access to the same information and context to do the work required to reach the desired outcome; systems thinking helps people do their best work.

Review and Appraise the System, not People

When you can see and study the system, you are better equipped to improve it, rather than blaming the people involved if desired outcomes are lacking. Not getting your desired end result doesn’t mean you have a people performance issue; your team may be up against major challenges you didn’t realize until you mapped the system. (This is true even for Aileron; making our own processes visible helped improve our work.)

When your business isn’t producing the results you want, it’s likely something is broken in your system of processes, structures, patterns, and cycles.

Creating a We vs. Me Culture

Applying systems thinking in business can support creation of a “we culture” – an ethos that values collaboration and innovation with a strong sense of compassion and “we’re all in this together” mindset. A systems approach ensures individuals are empowered to speak up and hold the system accountable to produce the desired results. Employees have ownership of the work and system that is created, and building an understanding of the broader meaning to an individual’s work can instill a sense of contribution and loyalty.

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