[Systems Engineering] #3. Understanding Systems Thinking

Successful systems practice requires not only applying systems thinking to the systems being created, but also utilizing systems thinking to consider how work is planned and performed.

In order to understand a concept as complex and subject to diverse interpretations as a system, a procedure or methodology is needed to effectively grasp the concept. These procedures and methodologies are the core of ‘Systems Thinking.’

However, the concept of ‘systems thinking’ seemed quite difficult to me at first. And I thought of the reasons that create these difficulties:

1) ‘Systems thinking’ refers in itself to a way of thinking or perspective. Because of this, it is difficult to simply define “this is what systems thinking is.” When reading related articles, I often think, “That’s right,” but the question remains, “So how do I apply it in practice?”

2) While working in field development for the past 10 years, I focused more on how to use concepts rather than a deep and accurate understanding. For this reason, there is no training in understanding the way of thinking or perspective required to understand theories or academic fields and applying them to actual work.

3) Systems thinking uses specific and intentionally defined terms such as ‘synthesis’, ‘emergence’, ‘interconnection’, and ‘feedback loop’. These technical terms can be difficult to understand for newcomers. Each of these words represents a core concept in systems thinking, but it takes time and effort to understand their meaning and application.

Most of you reading this are probably beginners like me who are seriously trying to learn systems engineering. I think many people have similar views on ‘systems thinking’ as me. With this background in mind, I hope to use this post to help you understand ‘systems thinking’ and provide some help on your journey into systems engineering.

First, I would like to share information on ‘What is Systems Thinking?’ that I have gathered from various sources. Systems thinking is one of the ways of thinking that is difficult to explain with a simple ‘A is B’ definition. So, I would like to collect opinions on how various experts explain ‘systems thinking’ to help you understand it overall. By doing this, we will be able to understand the core concepts of ‘systems thinking’ and form a clearer consensus through this.

This picture was drawn by Dall-e with the keyword Understanding Systems Thinking. In the picture, numerous gears are interlocking with each other.
This picture was drawn by Dall-e with the keyword Systems Thinking

The first perspective on systems thinking is as follows.

  1. Integrated Perspective : It is important to look at the entire system. This means understanding the interactions and functions of the system as a whole instead of focusing only on individual parts.
  2. Understanding key relationships : Identifying the key relationships that determine how a system works. This is important to understand how the parts within the system are interconnected.
  3. Acceptance of uncertainty and complexity : It is important to acknowledge the uncertainty and complexity of the system, respond adaptively and flexibly, and have a working attitude by learning lessons.
  4. Recognition of diverse perspectives : Recognizing and respecting that different people and groups may view the system in different ways. This helps you gain a deeper understanding of the system through different perspectives and experiences.
  5. Understanding resilience and adaptability : It is important to understand that the resilience and adaptability of a system is closely linked to strong communication networks and decentralized decision-making. This contributes to the sustainability and effective management of the system.
  6. Multidisciplinary, multidisciplinary collaboration : It is important to work collaboratively across a variety of specialties and areas. This is essential for solving complex problems and integrating various aspects of a system.

The second perspective emphasizes the need for in-depth consideration of the following six key keywords. (See linked Post)

  1. Interconnectivity : The concept is that all elements are interconnected. It emphasizes a shift from linear to circular thinking, where it is important to understand how each part of the system affects one another.
  2. Synthesis : it is the process of combining several elements to create something new. Systems thinking focuses on understanding the whole system and how the parts and whole interact with each other, rather than analyzing the parts.
  3. Emergence : It refers to new properties or patterns that arise from the interaction of parts. It describes how unexpected new phenomena or functions emerge when the parts of a system fit together.
  4. Feedback Loop : It is a cyclical process of interaction and communication that occurs within the system. It is important to understand the continuous feedback and flow between each element of the system, thereby observing and controlling the system.
  5. Causation : Understanding how one outcome leads to another. Interpret how elements within a system affect each other, which helps you better understand the behavior and connections of the system.
  6. System Mapping : The process of identifying elements within a system and visually representing how they are interconnected, related, and work. This allows us to understand complex systems and make effective interventions or policy decisions.

The third perspective summarizes the contents of the SEBok, Systems Thinking chapter.

  1. Wholeness and Interaction : The interactions between parts within a system are as important as the parts themselves, providing a holistic perspective for understanding complex systems.
  2. Regularity : While acknowledging the uniqueness of system problems and solutions, it is important to understand that in reality many problems and solutions are not completely unique and have certain regularities. Systems thinking captures the regularities that appear in natural and engineered systems. and utilize them to promote efficient problem solving and engineering.
  3. State and Behavior : The state of the system is defined as a set of properties at each point in time, monitored through state variables, and the behavior of the system is a response to events. Although deterministic systems are predictable, prediction of future states is more uncertain in non-deterministic systems.
  4. Survival Behavior : The system generally maintains an appropriate state, which in natural and social systems manifests itself in the form of self-organization and interactions between elements that occur intentionally or unconsciously.
  5. Goal Seeking Behavior : Goal pursuit is a core characteristic of engineering systems; the system pursues short-term goals, long-term goals, and ideals, which determine the system’s activities and direction.
  6. Control Behavior : Cybernetics defines control mechanisms that maintain the state of a system with negative feedback and induce growth or contraction with positive feedback, focusing on maintaining a balance between stability and speed of response.
  7. Function : Ackoff defines a system function as an output that contributes to a goal, the system must provide this in various ways, and the function can be performed synchronously or asynchronously, determining the behavior and effectiveness of the system.
  8. Hierarchy, Emergence and Complexity : System behavior is based on the interaction of elements and the relationship between wholes and parts, described as ‘synergy’ or ‘weak emergence’, and operates effectively through hierarchical structure and encapsulation, where in socio-technical systems, upper layers control lower layers. While controlling, a complex ‘emergent’ phenomenon occurs.
  9. Effectiveness, Adaptation and Learning : The effectiveness of a system is its ability to perform its functions to achieve a goal, which is defined as a combination of the number and efficiency (performance, availability, survivability) of behavioral combinations. Adaptive systems change in response to internal and external factors and are effective over time. It can improve your performance.

We analyzed these various perspectives and summarized them once again.

  1. Holistic Approach: Systems thinking focuses on the interactions and functions of the entire system rather than individual parts. This means understanding how the components of a system affect each other and what consequences these interactions have for the overall system.
  2. Interconnectivity and Relationship: All system elements are interconnected, and these connections play an important role in how the system operates overall. It is important to understand how the parts within a system are interconnected and how these connections affect overall functionality and performance.
  3. Adaptation to Uncertainty and Complexity: Systems naturally contain uncertainty and complexity. Systems thinking acknowledges this uncertainty and complexity and emphasizes the ability to respond adaptively and flexibly.
  4. Integration of Diverse Perspectives: It is important to recognize and respect the different perspectives different people and groups have on the system. This contributes to a deeper understanding of the system and effective problem solving.
  5. Resilience and Adaptability: System resilience and adaptability are important factors and can be strengthened through strong communication networks and decentralized decision-making. This contributes to the sustainability and effective management of the system.
  6. Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Collaboration across multiple specialties and areas is essential to solve complex problems. This is important to integrate different aspects of the system and arrive at a more comprehensive solution.
  7. System Mapping and Analysis: The process of identifying elements within a system and visually representing how they interconnect and function is essential to understanding complex systems. This enables effective interventions or policy decisions.
  8. Emergence: It refers to a phenomenon in which new properties or patterns occur when parts of a system interact. This indicates that when parts of a system fit together, new, unexpected phenomena or functions may emerge.
  9. Feedback Loops: Within a system, a cyclical process of interaction and communication between elements occurs. This feedback loop allows the system to observe and regulate itself, which is important for its stability and adaptability to change.
  10. Causality: It is important to understand the relationships between the various events and outcomes that occur within a system. This helps you understand how elements within a system affect each other and what consequences these interactions have for the system as a whole.
  11. Understanding Regularity: The recognition that many system problems and solutions have certain regularities. This is important in systems thinking to capture and exploit regularities in natural or engineered systems to drive efficient problem solving and engineering.
  12. State and Behavior: It is important to understand the state of the system and its behavior – how the system reacts and changes. This recognizes the difference between deterministic and non-deterministic systems and has implications for predicting future states.
  13. Survival Behavior: It refers to the tendency of a system to maintain an appropriate state. They are found in natural and social systems, and emerge through self-organization and interaction.
  14. Goal Seeking Behavior: It is the view that a system acts and has direction to achieve a specific goal. This is an important factor that determines the activity and direction of the system.
  15. Functional Perspective (Function): The function of a system is defined as the output that contributes to the goal, and the system provides this function in a variety of ways.
  16. Hierarchy, Emergence, and Complexity: The interaction of elements within a system creates relationships between wholes and parts, which work effectively through hierarchical structures and encapsulation. Complex emergent phenomena are observed in sociotechnical systems.
  17. Effectiveness, Adaptation, and Learning: The effectiveness of a system is defined as its ability to perform its functions to achieve goals, and the system can change in response to internal and external factors and improve its effectiveness over time.

These various perspectives (quite a few) of systems thinking ultimately remind me of the system concept (link) summarized in my previous post. Because, ultimately, systems thinking is a framework for thinking that helps us develop and manage systems effectively.

Systems thinking is an approach to looking at and understanding complex problems from multiple perspectives. It recognizes the role and importance of individual parts within an interconnected system and emphasizes adaptability and resilience in response to change. We aim to find integrated and innovative solutions to complex problems through collaboration between various specialties. Through this holistic perspective, systems thinking contributes to achieving more effective and sustainable results


Following this article, in the next post, I will summarize Principles of Systems Thinking, a chapter of SEBok.

[Systems Engineering] #1. INTRODUCTION – Navigating Systems Engineering

[Systems Engineering] #2. Definition of System

[Systems Engineering] #3. Understanding Systems Thinking

[Systems Engineering] #4. Useful knowledge of systems thinking

[Systems Engineering] #5. Understanding Systems engineering

[Systems Engineering] #6. Who is Systems Engineer

[Systems Engineering] #7. Understanding MBSE (Model Based Systems Engineering)

[Systems Engineering] #8. Additional practical knowledge about MBSE

[Systems Engineering] #9. What is Good System Model?

[Systems Engineering] #10. Understanding SysML (System Modeling Language)

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