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Systems Thinking for Lean Practitioners

Friday, December 01, 2023 1:17 PM | Andi Barajas (Administrator)

By: Christina Dragonetti, Development and Communications Manager, The W. Edwards Deming Institute

“I am not here to teach you anything new, I’m here to make you see things that you would not normally see.” – W. Edwards Deming

From an early age, we learn to break things into parts. We learn the ABCs linearly: A to B to C to D. We learn to break math problems into pieces to solve them. Later, we're taught to compartmentalize entire subjects. History is different from literature, which is different from science, and so on. 

No wonder we approach business by breaking departments or projects into parts and trying to optimize each separately! 

But even with tools like Lean, some problems get solved…and then come back. That’s what Dr. Deming called a “system problem.” Breaking the problem into pieces and solving each, then putting it back together, doesn't always work. You are analyzing each part as though other parts aren’t involved with the problem. When you step back and look at the interaction of the parts with each other and with the people, processes, and systems around them, you will more readily see why the problem continues. Plus, you'll see how and where to intervene for a permanent solution. 

For example, in a physical therapy clinic, they had problems with patients missing appointments. If you think of this as a problem with patients, your receptionists repeatedly call and email them about making and keeping appointments. Each appointment is scheduled individually. This sometimes impacts treatment schedules and causes patient confusion. Also, the hours spent on these calls and emails take time and focus away from the aim of the organization: helping clients reach their highest physical potential. 

Using systems thinking, you see this as a problem with the entire appointment-making process. 

In this real-life example, everyone wanted to focus on the aim of supporting patients, not on the chaotic scheduling process. With the support of management, the receptionists across 4 offices devised a plan using Plan-Do-Study-Act. They decided to schedule all the recommended appointments for each patient based on their treatment plan when they come in the first time. This plan eliminated the many calls and emails required to schedule appointments. The result? Patients mostly stopped missing appointments. They got the therapy they needed at the proper intervals. Staff and therapists were better able to focus on helping patients reach their goals. 

What are the key attributes of system thinking?

Systems thinking requires looking at your organization in a new, integrated way. Every system must have an aim: the reason the system exists. Your aim must include the future and the value your organization creates for the world.

For example, at The Deming Institute, our aim is: “enriching society through the Deming philosophy.” Everything we do, including our learning events, how we communicate, and our administrative processes, are working toward sharing this knowledge with the world. (Note: "making money" is not an aim; it is a byproduct of your system.)

Once you’ve figured out the aim of your organization, identify inputs, processes, and outputs (positive and negative) of the system, as well as the customers for each. Customers can be internal or external to the organization. At the organization level, inputs can include staff members, government regulations, technology, and the suppliers who provide inputs. Some organizations include COVID or global warming as part of their inputs. Processes include anything that adds value to your product or service or keeps the organization running. 

For example, in an ice cream business, processes include creating new flavors, billing methods, payment processing, manufacturing, distribution, sales, and all the people involved in all those processes. The interaction of all these parts and people, working toward a common aim, creates a system. 

Finally, identify your outputs. These can be good: profit, brand recognition, happy customers, happy employees, influence on legislation, reduced carbon footprint, and more. Outputs can also be negative: waste, legal action, insolvency, unhappy vocal customers, or staff turnover. For some organizations, your output also includes the success of the clients using your product or service. When you create this level of detail about the interacting components of your system, you can begin to draw a picture of the components that you have to manage towards the aim.

This “big picture” view of your organization calms the chaos, (mostly) prevents firefighting, and helps everyone understand their place – and therefore their value – in the organization. 

Why use systems thinking?

Systems thinking, as Dr. Deming described it, is helpful for tasks, processes, organizations, families, communities, society, and ourselves. It allows for a more rational and methodical approach to problems. Everyone in the organization works toward a common aim. Happy customers, high morale, low turnover, profit, and innovation are byproducts (outputs) of a well-designed system.

If you want to learn more about the Deming Management Methods or his 14 Points for Management, visit www.deming.org. To learn more about our online learning program Deming NEXT visit deming.org/demingnext.  


  • Tuesday, February 13, 2024 3:49 PM | Andi Barajas (Administrator)
    “Many reading this may think that simply identifying all the various components in the system, and focusing on helping them cooperate towards the aim is system thinking. Appreciation for a system includes the understanding that when Deming is trying to teach us about what we don’t see, what we don’t see is the interactions within the system. Many might identify those interactions as the arrows on their charts, which is a start. But Dr. Deming helped us identify those things that influence the interactions as primary elements in an effective system of management. Such as a regular conversation to find out what is important to each person in the organization. Or the impact that ranking has upon how employees see, and are willing to work with, each other. Appreciation for a System includes seeing the damaging interaction between management’s objectives, their chosen incentives, and the influence those incentives have on long-term intrinsic motivation. Some who think they know about the term systems thinking do not address these unseen structures within their current management system. Dr. Deming wanted us to begin to see things beyond the tangible items we can point to in the world or on our flow charts.” -- submitted by Eric Budd, Board Of Directors, Institute for Quality and Innovation
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