What Is Systems Thinking?

What Is Systems Thinking?
Systems thinking applies to disciplines as varied as physics, education, mathematics, psychology, ecology, computer science, biology, and management. Image from Pexels
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Lucy Davies July 19, 2022

Systems thinking is the practice of examining the whole rather than focusing on isolated issues. It’s a holistic approach that helps complex organizations function, learn, and solve problems.

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses across the world to adapt and pivot quickly in response to massive and rapid change. The epidemic disrupted everything from the highest levels of planning and forecasting to consumers in their local shops as supply chains, manufacturing, and shipping ground to a sudden halt.

In the wake of these unprecedented challenges, foreign and domestic manufacturing demonstrated extremes in “both organizational limitations and resiliency,” posing considerable and unique challenges for business leaders and decision-makers. To whom can they turn for solutions? Engineering managers.

The pandemic has provided myriad opportunities for business and government leaders to examine the systems they employ and rely on for their survival and learn from this extraordinary experience. Moving forward, engineering managers will examine the successes and failures of this period through systems thinking—determining the relationships and dynamics that worked and those that didn’t.

In this article, we’ll explain what is systems thinking, as well as cover the following:

  • Definition of systems thinking
  • Fundamental concepts of systems thinking
  • Examples of systems thinking
  • Benefits of systems thinking and its potential to solve problems
  • What is a master’s in engineering management?

What is systems thinking?

In 1990, American academic and systems scientist Peter Senge published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, his seminal work on the management science of systems thinking. Drawing on the work of John H. Hopkins, operations researcher Russell Ackoff, Barry Richmond, Linda Sweeney, John Sterman, Jay Forrester, and many others, Senge outlined five key disciplines that can help complex and dynamic organizations function, learn, and solve problems by considering the whole instead of deconstructing the organization into smaller parts for analysis.

Senge believed that “Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.” He explained that to be successful in increasingly challenging environments, organizations need to act as learning instruments—taking a big picture look at complex problems—and continue to evolve in response to new information, improving and adapting as they grow.

Systems thinking approaches problem solving with a holistic approach to how a system’s individual parts influence the larger whole, with principles that apply to any organizational system. It applies to disciplines as varied as physics, education, mathematics, psychology, ecology, computer science, biology, and management. In the language of natural sciences, the systems perspective can be described as the study of an ecosystem. Consideration is paid to all the functions of its smaller living members and all other environmental influences and not just the individual pieces themselves.

The first four critical elements of systems thinking Senge outlined for a healthy learning organization are:

  • Personal mastery
  • Mental models (our presumptions and generalizations)
  • Building a shared vision
  • Team learning

Systems thinking—the fifth element—is the one that is responsible for pulling the other four together. It involves understanding the relationships, interactions, and behaviors that make up the larger system.


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Definition of systems thinking

Systems are sets of smaller parts, with each part influencing and affecting each other and the larger whole. In business, these systems may consist of a single company of employees, processes, and policies; a group of companies in a larger industry of many competitors; or an even larger economic system, all with their own set of system dynamics.

Within these complex relationships, interactions can be studied to discover and learn new possibilities for better decision-making. In a global economy, utilizing systems science allows businesses to examine and measure not only the internal influences of employees, capital, equipment, and management, but also the consumers, regulations, government, and economic external influences. Systems thinking uses the examination of these influences to find leverage points that drive sound decisions and effective action in complex situations.

Fundamental concepts of systems thinking

Systems thinking involves moving away from hard and straight lines and moving into nonlinear or even circular constructs. Let’s look at some of the key concepts from systems theory that make up the ways a systems mindset can develop under a different construct.

  • Interconnectedness is the idea that everything that exists is connected and reliant on other things for its existence. This concept allows us to imagine parts of a larger system as an array and not a set of separate and individual parts. It’s not a structured mechanical view, but a moving, changing, dynamic group of related systems in relationships and feedback loops.
  • Synthesis is the process by which two or more things combine to make a new whole. Synthesis is the opposite of analysis, which separates combined things to examine them. Synthesis sees the combined and complex interconnectedness and the influence of the parts on the whole.
  • Emergence is a concept that moves a little beyond synthesis. Emergence is the birth of a new self-organized something that is maybe best understood in biological terms: the creation of life or shapes from the assembly and organization of elements that might otherwise exist in separate silos.
  • Feedback loops work in two ways. Reinforcing feedback loops are not as positive as they sound; they represent the repetition of more of the same that can act as a bloom in a repeating cycle (think: bacteria). A balancing feedback loop is just that, a positive force that seeks equal footing.
  • Causality is the function of systems interconnectedness and should be thought of in a cyclical form. Actions shape results and those results influence future actions. One systems thinking tool is the causal loop diagram that illustrates this dynamic relationship.
  • Systems mapping includes a number of graph and chart models that help illustrate the ways that the different parts of a system interrelate and connect. Studying these maps can help identify positive and negative patterns and archetypes, allowing for the development of interventions and initiatives for system changes.

Examples of systems thinking

Our bodies contain breathing, digestive, nervous, and circulation systems, and those systems function and interact with each other. Systems thinking involves considering these networks as a whole and not just a community of parts. A broken cog in a machine can keep getting replaced if it breaks repeatedly, but doesn’t it make sense to look at the stressors and influences that might be causing the break? The same can be said for physical symptoms in the body. What is causing the headache or high cholesterol? To effectively treat a medical issue, it may make sense to look at stress levels, diet, or current medications and how they might be impacting a patient’s overall health. We may need to look at the systems just outside our bodies, too. What are the relationships and influences of our environment and local ecosystem?

There are systems thinking examples all around us in healthcare, government, families, and business. What is the reason for the high turnover in a new business startup? Is it management, ineffective onboarding, or poor communication? How do the departments support each other? Are they run independently of each other? If we change the patterns of interaction between them, do we find a positive result?

Benefits of systems thinking and its potential to solve problems

Systems thinking provides opportunities to consider stakeholders at all levels in planning decisions by continually looking outside the immediate break or issue and examining other participants who might be impacted. This removes the right and wrong of a decision and creates space for a dynamic understanding of learning and best choices.

This commitment to learning and adapting a scientific approach and methodology means that organizations can continue to learn, grow and adapt to changing stressors and influences. A recent Forbes article summarized the benefits of systems thinking this way: “It helps in framing complex problems, which are often being misdiagnosed when using linear thinking. It shows alternative directions for improvement concerning the company’s inner and outer connections. It gives a significant advantage in increasing the organization’s capacity for change and, as a consequence, to fulfill the vision of business sustainability.”

What is a master’s in engineering management?

Organizational leaders, government officials, and engineering managers benefit when they use systems thinking to help with complicated and important system dynamics, whether during normal business cycles or global disruptions like the coronavirus pandemic. Peter Senge outlined three important characteristics of systems thinking which include a “consistent and strong commitment to learning, a willingness to challenge your own mental model… and including multiple perspectives when looking at a phenomenon.”

These characteristics define the curricula of some excellent master’s in engineering management (MEM) programs, like those offered by Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Stevens Institute of Technology, where first-term coursework focuses on Project Management of Complex Systems and moves on to systems modeling in advanced courses and electives.

A master’s in engineering management connects the technology and business curriculum so that graduates can leverage management skills in both areas. MEM degree students can choose from specializations in systems-based concentrations that include mechanical engineering, healthcare systems, structural engineering, supply chain management, environmental systems, managerial analytics, entrepreneurship, and systems engineering, depending on their career goals. Students can pursue a MEM with about two years of full-time study and can find both on-campus and flexible online options.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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