The term “system” is vague — it’s “a bunch of stuff” or a kind of “bucket” in which to throw a variety of things. But “systems thinking” might just be an engineer’s most-powerful tool. It focuses on relationships among things instead of on the things themselves. Here’s why this concept is important:

The approach draws attention to the “whole” — whatever that might entail — rather than the parts. Thinking about a system and not just simple cause-and-effect relationships is what helps spur lasting change and avoid unintended consequences.

A systems point of view provides positive and negative feedback loops, which reinforces and balances ever-present processes.

Systems thinking is integrative. It provides ways to partition the universe so users can focus on the relevant parts and ignore (cautiously) everything else. As Peter Senge says in The Fifth Discipline (1990), systems thinking combines personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision, and team learning.

The method provides a powerful perspective. According to Pegasus Communications (www.pegasuscom.com), it helps people see events and patterns in a new light. For example, suppose a fire breaks out in your town. Should you respond by putting out the fire, you’re merely reacting and have done nothing to prevent new fires.

However, should you extinguish the fire and then study where fires tend to break out locally, you’d be paying attention to patterns. You might notice that certain neighborhoods suffer more fires than others. Locate more fire stations in those areas and you’re fostering adaptation. However, you still haven’t done anything to prevent new fires.

In contrast, a systems point of view would consider smoke-detector distribution, building materials, and anything which influences neighborhood-fire-outbreak patterns. Then, building new fire-alarm mechanisms and establishing fire and safety codes would help eliminate fires. You’re now doing something to better the world.

A few simple ideas help users get a grip on the systems aspects of problems. For example, systems tend toward equilibrium. A comprehensive approach to this can be found in “System Dynamics,” a discipline created by Jay Forrester at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the '50s that now makes it possible to model and understand systems with simulation software instead of plowing through rigorous mathematical analysis. Check out www.iseesystems.com to try such software.

For high-school students interested in systems engineering, the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE, www.incose.org), suggests getting an undergraduate degree in a specific engineering discipline and then pursuing studies in systems engineering at the graduate level. More-mature students with some life experience might only need an undergraduate systems-engineering course.

I’ve often been asked by parents what skills should be emphasized in their kids’ education to help them become engineers and scientists. I used to list: typing, communication (written and oral), and library science or the organization of knowledge. Today, the intelligent use of search engines is more important than library science. And systems thinking now tops my list.

— Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary Emeritus of Cyon Research Corp. The views he expresses here are his own, not those of Cyon. Reach him at joel@joelorrcoaching.com.

Edited by Leslie Gordon

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.