Importance of Systems Thinking

Ship maintenance is one of the most complex endeavors known to man, but it is not completely unpredictable or irrational no matter how much that seems to be the case from time to time. Most of the processes in use are perfectly calibrated to achieve the results they do. Ship overhauls represent a "system" and the task of every Engineering Duty Officer is to make sense of the system so you can positively influence it.  I took most of the content for this post from an email sent to me by one of my mentors, Ben Stilmar.

→ From Dr. Deming (“The New Economics”):

  •  “An example of a system, well optimized, is a good orchestra.  The players are not there to play solos as prima donnas … They are there to support each other.  Individually, they need not be the best players in the country… The obligation of any component is to contribute its best to the system, not to maximize its own [performance].”
  • “A system must have an aim.  Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system.  The aim must include plans for the future.”
  • “The components need not all be clearly defined and documented: people may merely do what needs to be done.  Management of a system therefore requires knowledge of the interrelationships between all the components within the system and the people that work within it.”
  • “A system must be managed.  It will not manage itself.  Left to themselves in the Western world, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system.” 

→ From the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “Managing Professional Intellect”:

“Members of every profession tend to look to their peers to document codes of behavior. They often refuse to accept evaluations by those outside their discipline. ...Professionals tend to surround themselves with people who have similar backgrounds and values. Unless deliberately fractured, these discipline-based cocoons become inward looking bureaucracies that are resistant to change and detached from customers. ...The tendency of each profession to regard itself as an elite with special cultural values may get in the way of cross-disciplinary sharing.  Many professionals have little respect for those outside their field, even when parties are supposedly seeking the same goal (Soule - the reason URLs often grow to hate EDs).  Often in manufacturing companies, researchers disdain product designers, who disdain engineers.  [The article describes various means to break down these barriers.]”

(Managing Professional Intellect: Making the Most of the Best, Quinn, Anderson, Finkelstein; HBR, Mar-Apr 1996)

→ A comment attributed to the first SURFOR, VADM Terry Etnyre,  was that it was a common misperception that forming a cross-functional team was a good way to commandeer resources to do something one did not have resources to accomplish.

→ Peter Block in “Empowered Manager” noted that most managers, when given an option to give up control to improve performance, choose to retain control.

Suggestions for Improving Systems Thinking

There is certainly no substitute for domain knowledge (deep knowledge or your organization, its policies and decision makers, goals and motivations of customers and suppliers, etc.) in improving your ability for systems thinking. Other ideas:

When you study a system or process, ask yourself and experts, why it gets the results it does.  Most organizations are perfectly designed to obtain the results they are getting and must be redesigned to obtain different results (this is what the founders of CT1 did).  

If you get something from someone else that is not useful (paperwork, meeting performance, emails, phone messages, etc.), do you take the time to explain to the person why it is not useful to you and what they can do about it? 

If someone is clearly not using the input you provide, do you confront the person and ask why so you can either improve your inputs to them or move on to more useful activity that does not waste your time? 

Do you regularly get or seek feedback for the work you provide to someone else?

Write down how you think a system works (goals of organizations, key processes, feedback mechanisms, potential weaknesses, etc.) and get feedback from others, especially the people viewed as "experts," about the model you created.

Further reading

  • “The New Economics,” Deming
  • “The Fifth Discipline” or “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,” Senge et al