The term systems thinking has become somewhat synonymous with change and leadership, and as such it’s one of those terms that’s said a lot and presumed to be understood without explanation.
But defining systems thinking is somewhat of an impossible task. There are arguably dozens of possible descriptions and definitions, often with wholly different intent and individual delicate nuance. However, they can be generalised into two schools of thinking, the living systems perspective or lean manufacturing.
Systems thinking as living systems, often called whole systems thinking is one of holism and ecology. Of relationship and the whole.
The concept of living systems challenges the beliefs about systems developed in the industrial age, whereby organisations and the people within them are viewed as constituent parts. Dictated to, controlled. Each process and person an individual and seperate component. Cogs in machines that act in controlled and predictable ways.
But if we are to think of places and the people within them as part of a holistic ecology. We consider that every action, thought, process is in some way related to everything else, and as such that everything has consequence and significance.
Much work has been done from theorists such as Maturana and Varela, Myron Rogers, Bateson, Fritjof Capra and others, exploring the properties of living systems and the nature of relationships within them and between them.
On the other hand the Lean approach to systems thinking is founded in manufacturing and processing. Lean thinking can be attributed to the work of Toyata, and was first used to describe their business methodology. As such lean thinking is often referred to as the Toyota Production System (TPS) or the Danaher Business System. The practice was developed by Edward Deming (amongst others). Deming's 14 points are often used as guidelines to practicing lean thinking in business practice and organisational change.
Lean thinking rather than focusing on each separate small element within a system instead focuses on the ways in which the whole works together. It is concerned with developing processes and human actions in ways that can deliver the most benefit, but at the same time reduce ‘waste’ in the practices and performance of the system-in other words getting more value for customers while using fewer resources.
Whilst there is clearly some similarity between these different schools of thought and undoubtedly some overlap, a fundamental difference remains. Lean relies on stable, defined processes that can be incrementally improved and captured in standard operating procedures. Living systems accept variation as inherent in human life and finds ways of working with that through better understanding the networks of relationships that exist in any society.