The Dead Language of Systems Thinking


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This year as a result of Dr. Deming, I had decided to dig into Systems Thinking more. I re-read The Fifth Discipline, which had been my introduction into Lean and Six Sigma. Being a business owner, I did not have a problem looking at the whole or as it later became known as viewing the entire value stream. However, Systems Thinking through its theory is quite useful, in practically it served little purpose. I gravitated towards Lean and Theory of Constraints.

After starting this year with renewed energy for System Thinking, re-reading many old books and even dusting off some casual loop material, I started reaching out for the latest and greatest. My initial path took me through Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges by Otto Scharmer and Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society by Peter Senge, amazingly similar to CAP Do as explained by Joiner and Akao. This thought is being captured in what I call the Lean Marketing Conversation. Still working on that, as it coincides with the principles of Service Dominant Logic and the way I believe how value is created. Or I might say, co-created.

The next step of my journey took me towards some mapping where it can be done in clusters and around conversations. Which again solidifies the idea of the sales and marketing conversation and how it is dispersed between organizations. I am just about as excited as you can be, about research, and ready to take the deeper dive into Systems Thinking. What I need is human interaction to solidify my theory and see how practitioners are using this material.

I link up with a few System Thinkers and join several Systems Thinking Groups on LinkedIn and started monitoring a few of the conversations. I was uninspired by most conversations. It seemed that Systems Thinkers were more worried about solving world hunger and telling everyone how it should be done from the 20K level. It was practically all theory. Finally, a question was asked how Systems Thinking and Lean are related. I wait for a few answers and chimed in when someone says Lean is just a set of tools. I say that is not so true even though Lean has a great toolbox, it is a little more than that. Roman

It was explained by more than one that Lean is a set of tools. I ask for a little evidence, and I am referred to 1986 Womack and Jones. I mention that, yes it favored the tools in 90s, but that was the age of process methodologies. I was asked for more evidence, and I mention that if you look at how Lean has matured through the years, or better yet observing just the progression from the original Toyota Way book (basically a tool book) to the Toyota Way material of today, you can see the progression of Lean. I ask how Systems Thinking has progressed and could someone name an organization that would call themselves a Systems Thinking Company. The reply was that everything was a system and that they deal in the social…blah blah world. I am given a link to a page to explain everything. The central theme of the page to include an outline was a value map, a tool. I asked why a tool was chosen to explain Systems Thinking.

The funny part was the moderator commented on how myopic this conversation was etc. I apologized and just said that I was there to learn about Systems Thinking and hoped I could still do so. After the moderator participates in the thread, there was a flood of others that joined in and the conversation was civil for a while till the original Lean bashing returned. I even read that Dr. Deming held an isolated view of Systems Thinking. I finally left the group and un-Linked a few contacts from my profile. The group seems highly knowledgeable, but they came across to me as an elitist group protecting their territory.

I bash Lean for being to supply-side orientated all the time. I bash Lean for being tool-happy. I can understand others doing it and thinking that way. What I could not accept in the conversation was the elitism that occurred and the failure to be willing to discuss the original question, the similarities. Instead, it continued as another onslaught of what I have called Lean bashing. I left the conversation and the group.

In summary, I believe that all systems are very similar. The difference from DMAIC to PDCA to Casual Loops are not all that different. The difference is the path we take to get there and the people we align ourselves with to accomplish it. It is a shame we spend so much time bashing the other methods. Lean happens to be a popular business model at this time. For Systems Thinkers to say that it is a tool box, it appears to me that they are internalized in their own thinking. They even cited ASQ as adding Systems Thinking to the Lean body of knowledge. What they failed to realize, it was being added to the Lean body of knowledge, not the other way around.

I left thinking that Systems Thinking may be a dead language. It is seldom spoken in business and only a few study it. It may be the basis and important part of how we must view things, but it has been swallowed up in the dialect of other methodologies. It reminds of the Latin language. Latin is an important part of most Mediterranean languages, but it is not spoken. Its usefulness has passed.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


  1. Joseph, I feel your pain!

    Unfortunately, the same thing happens in most any group when an outsider attempts to challenge, er, educate the group. There is a tendency to get locked into a way of thinking and reject other ideas. A form of groupthink, I believe.

    Can you say it would be different in Lean groups? Or CEM? Or CRM? Or SDL?

    For a presentation one time I compiled a list of a dozen different terms, each purported to be “the answer” to business success.

    When you look at CRM vs. CEM, for example, you find that CRM experts say CEM is included. CEM experts say just the opposite. Depending on how these terms are defined, both can be right!

    My own research finds a lot of common ground, but important differences in orientation. I see the two ideas in more of a yin-yang relationship.

    In regards to “Systems Thinking” I can’t honestly say I know the formal definition. But I’ve come to the conclusion that great customer-centric businesses have better systems for getting work done that creates customer value. And I don’t mean system in the tech sense.

    One positive trend is that the customer is becoming a bigger part of many of these ideas. But it can be difficult for the market to accept an “evolved” definition. Just ask the CRMers, who contend CRM a strategy but the market thinks of it as automation tools.

  2. Thanks for the comment Bob, great analogy with CRM.

    It does seem to be about orientation. It’s not about the path we take to get to the top of the mountain. It’s just about getting there.

  3. Hello Joseph

    Yes, lean is popular within business. That does not make it better or worse than Systems Thinking. Popular means it is an idea/methodology that fits with the times. Like the movie genre of westerns did once in the USA and does not today.

    Here is what I see as the big difference between lean and systems thinking. I have seen kaizen/lean applied first hand. So you have a whole bunch of people doing lean in contact centres for a specific area or process. And yes, they optimise the hell out of it. Completely oblivious to the impact that optimisation has on the rest of the organisation.

    So we have lean done in the marketing lead generation process. And it works marvellously. The problem is that it creates all kind of waste/problems in sales. Like generating leads that sales doesn’t want or generating so many leads that sales leave over 90% of them untouched. Or you do lean in manufacturing and it works great in the plant and the costs pop up elsewhere in sales, on backorders, customer services due to customer complaints, logistics due to multiple shipments to fulfil the same customer order, on in finance to get the money from the customer.

    Systems thinking has not been adopted because organisations are chunked into silos. Silo functions, silo agendas. And pretty much nobody cares about the connections. Systems thinking is all about the connections.

    Finally, lean is dead easy as a conceptual framework because it is reductionist and analytical. And that accords with the kind of thinking is dominant and the default in the west. Systems thinking is about process, about relationships, about mutuality, non-linearity. Systems thinking is about synthesis. And we don’t teach/practice that in the west. When I am putting strategies together my work is synthesis – finding many different puzzle pieces and making the attempt to create a coherent picture. And I can tell you that is damn hard.


  4. Maz,

    I appreciate your comments and your insight.

    I can only respond that we differ in opinion. However, you do an excellent job in substantiating what I was saying in my blog post.

  5. I think that systems thinking can be explained in just about two sentences. So, where’s the catch? Even if you understand the concept of systems, the application of that concept in the real world is incredibly difficult because of the complexity of the systems that are involved with real world problems.

    Solving problems in a systems way pushes one to look “bigger” and bigger because that’s where you find systems related problems, and then you end up with an aching head.

    The “tools” themselves are just tools. The ultimate tool is our brains, which, sadly, have some limitations when it comes to “big”.

    PS. When I see people vehemently debating one “tool” or another, I wonder what they are REALLY debating.

  6. Robert, very well said.

    My point was not to get in a tool argument. As Bob mentioned – it is always the other guy that has the tool box.

    Most of us have a good set of tools, methods or whatever we want to call Lean, Systems Thinking, etc. It is how we use them that is important. We empower that use by our brainpower, as you say, making the tools what they are.

  7. I agree. Tools are just tools, whether it’s lean methodologies, or in other fields like performance reviews, or “quality”. Something I’ve noticed generally is that some segment of advocates of a particular view, tend to get “religious” about their tools. Social media is a good example, since, in essence it’s a set of tools to reach an end, and not an end in itself. But if you read what’s written you see all kinds of “religiousity” discussion where people try to convert each other rather than engage in learning discussions to determine why and when certain tools are appropriate.

    The work of Deming has suffered because of the attachment of disciples to his work. It’s a good example of how religiousity has, in effect, destroyed a body of work and “dead-ended it”.

  8. Hi Joe

    I understand your difficulties, and I agree with Bob, that people are often very defensive of their ‘ology’ and with Maz, that systems thinking faces challenges in siloed organisations.

    I have been fortunate to have learned systems thinking (e.g. Forrester, Sterman and others) in the early 1990s when I worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers. I found the big picture ethos behind systems thinking very powerful when trying to understand how a system works. And all businesses are systems, whether we recognise it or not. I used systems thinking – based on influence diagrams, stock and flow diagrams and dynamic simulation – to create a balanced scorecard of measures for a European Airline Frequent Flyer programme. The systemic understanding it gave the airline in what actually drove business success over time was key to the FFPs future development. I find that I use a systemic perspective in all my work today.

    I subsequently learned lean in the early 2000s when I was Head of CRM at Toyota Financial Services. Lean at Toyota is an intentional business operating model with a large set of useful tools. At Toyota the emphasis is on the operating model, not on the tools. Outside Toyota it is often the other way round. Having used lean thinking to redevelop TFS’ CRM activities I found it remarkably similar to many of the things I learned from systems thinking. The emphasis was on understanding the whole system, not just the part you can see. Indeed, one of the excellent Productivity Press books on lean is all about ‘Seeing the Whole’. I find that I use a Tooyta’s Hoshin Kanri thinking in all my work today too.

    In a nutshell, systems thinking and lean are remarkably similar in ethos. They even use some similar tools. But that is rather beside the point. The point is that all businesses are systems and you should use systemic tools to understand how they work and how they can be influenced. There is a huge choice of tools available and you should mix and match the right tools for the job, irrespective of their origin.

    Graham Hill


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