Systems Thinking

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Operation Cat Drop.

In the 1950’s, villagers in Borneo had a problem with malaria carrying mosquitoes. Eventually they had enough of being sick every so often and did what people do, they contacted their elected politicians and asked them to do something about it. Politicians are good at making promises but terrible at solving problems, so they turned to scientists to study the problem. Labs worked until late at night, they published peer reviewed papers, held conferences, etc., and decided to get rid of malaria, they had to get rid of the mosquitoes, and DDT was the most effective way to do so.

Villages and the forests around them were sprayed with the poison, mosquito counts dropped, and so did the incidence of malaria. The villagers were happy, politicians had photo ops, and the scientists clapped each other on the back for being so clever. A little while later, the villagers started dying from bubonic plague. Something went seriously wrong.

You can’t spray everything with DDT and think it affects only mosquitoes, it affects all animals in the forest. DDT has no effect on cockroaches, which is food for geckos and ingest the DDT with their prey. It doesn’t kill them, but slows them down which makes them easy prey for cats. As everyone knows, cats are terribly sensitive to poison and die from the DDT they ingest with the geckos. The cats are the natural predators of rats and in their absence rat populations explode, and rats carry the bubonic plague to humans.

One may represent stories like this one visually on something called a system dynamics model which looks something like this.

Ackoff talks about a mess as two or more interacting problem systems, in this case a human and ecosystem. To solve the mess, the government parachuted cats into the forest to restore the imbalance politicians and scientists created. That kind of solution to a self-created problem happens a lot. People laugh when I tell this story, except it’s a true one. Which is not that funny.

A system is an entity consisting of interconnected parts interacting with each other, and from the interactions properties emerge which the parts by itself can’t have, for as long as the entity remains together. Parts are what remain relatively stable over time. All parts affect the function of the entity, parts respond to the parts around them, and parts affect the entity through the way they interact with the parts around them. We analyze systems by taking them apart, but in doing so the system loses what emerges from the interactions, and that type of thinking dominates how we do things in the West. Considering only the parts is how the politicians and scientists got themselves into trouble and keep doing so.

One must also consider interactions, and how information, matter, or energy is exchanged (as in the diagram), which they left out, and to know what the entity does, one must consider how the entity is connected to other entities of which the entity of interest is a part, and what its function is in terms of the other entity, before we can analyze it. A heart means nothing outside a body, it’s part of a cardiovascular system consisting of various parts and to know what it does you must know how they fit into the body as a whole.

Jaundice is a general description which means little by itself; there are different types and causes. In the same way “system” means little without knowing the context in which it is used.

There is an academic discipline called systems thinking, and all it means is thinking in terms of wholes or systems. A systems approach means taking a broad view and trying to take all aspects into account, as well as concentrating on the interactions between components. From the ideas of systems thinking and taking a systems approach, various people developed prescriptions, formulas, and methods (systems methodologies) for dealing with complex problems, which is where the terms “systems” and “systems thinking” becomes a problem. Many people think knowing about and using a popular systems methodology is systems thinking. It isn’t, there is much more to it than that.

In the West we are biased to act rather than trying to understand the problem first. The politicians in Borneo wanted a quick easy solution to get rid of voter complaints and the scientists provided them with it, but acting before understanding frequently destabilizes complex systems, creating bigger problems or messes, and acting on them in the same way, even bigger problems. We think methods are solutions, but they imply a perspective of thinking about “system” which is only partial and sometimes wrong.

There is a deeper issue to this. Systems as interacting parts from which functions emerge implies complexity, but the discipline of systems thinking is founded on clockwork thinking suggesting one can analyze things, based on that fully understand complex problems, and then solve them with the right formula. However, it is difficult to understand or even describe complex problems in practice, and you don’t know what the best way is to act; it emerges as you interact with the problem. Hence systems methodologies without care often create new problems.

I believe systems thinking and a systems approach is useful, but only if based on acknowledging the reality we deal with is complex and does not work as a clockwork. People labelled as systems thinkers and practitioners often don’t understand that, which gives the whole idea a bad reputation. Pockets of planners in health care are claiming to be systems thinkers but the approach they take is tepid diluted coffee. They fixate on a single systems approach and methodology in the belief the methodology is systems thinking, The problem is after one sip, no-one wants to drink that anymore and the baby gets chucked out with the bath water. The problem is not systems thinking, the problem is a lack of understanding of what it is, what it can do, and, importantly, what it can’t.

Had the politicians and scientists understood the magnitude of the problem and stopped to consider the complexity of it, they would not have had to parachute cats into the forest. There is lots of parachuting going on in health care.