A Look at “Think Systemically”

A Look at “Think Systemically”

by Ken Snyder

“Think Systemically” is a principle in the Enterprise Alignment dimension of the Shingo Model. Through understanding the relationships and interconnectedness within a system we are able to make better decisions and improvements. This principle is largely based on the pioneering work of Russ Ackoff and Peter Senge. An example of thinking systemically is looking at the entire value stream to make improvements.

A Story

As Executive Director of the Shingo Institute, it is my privilege to visit 60-70 excellent organizations every year. On most visits to organizations, I often ask people to tell me about the most recent improvement idea they submitted that was implemented. Typically, people are excited to tell me. This is a clear sign that these people are engaged and proud of the improvements they are making. Unfortunately, more often than not, the conversation goes something like the following:

Me: “Please tell me about the most recent improvement idea you implemented.”

Machine Operator: “I would love to. See this process right here? We used to do this process by (names the steps and demonstrates the actions). I thought of a better way by doing this (demonstrates new steps and demonstrates the actions). As a result of this change, we eliminated these two steps.”

Me: “So this resulted in a productivity improvement?”

Machine Operator: “Yes. We improved the process productivity by about 15%. I’m able to produce more parts in the same amount of time.”

Me: (pointing to a nearby wall where the six plant goals for the year are listed – none of which include productivity improvement) “So how does this tie in to the plant goals?”

Machine Operator: “Um… I don’t know.”

Me: “What has been the impact of your productivity improvement? How has it impacted the overall performance of the production line?”

Machine Operator: “I don’t know that either.”

I then check with the next step in the process and discover that the overproduction created additional work-in-process inventory.

Too often, as in this case, we see improvements that are a waste at best, and may even cause more waste – such as increased WIP inventory – because they are not aligned with the purpose and goals of the organization.

The machine operator in this example did not understand the impact her productivity “improvement” made on the rest of the production line. Not only did the operator not understand the goals of the plant, but also had not yet learned to think systemically. This is a difficult principle to understand for some people – until it dawns on them. It seems we all must have our own “Aha!” moment when we see the entire system.

My “Aha!” Moment

I remember my own personal struggle to understand this principle. My “Aha!” moment came when I heard a speech given by the person often credited to be the father of systemic thinking, Prof. Russell Ackoff. In the speech, Prof. Ackoff demonstrated systemic thinking by asking us to imagine that a group of engineers gathered all the different car models produced throughout the world into one location. The engineers then tested the cars to determine which car has the best brakes, which car has the best steering, which car has the best engine, which car has the best suspension, etc. They then took these best parts off of each car and put them together to make THE best car. Prof. Ackoff then asked, “What do they have?” He answered his own question, “Nothing. You don’t even have a car!” He then asked why. And then answered his own question again, “Because the parts don’t fit!” Systemic thinking is about how all the pieces fit together. And how the system (in this case, the car) achieves its purpose – that is, to transport the occupants safely and efficiently from one place to another.[1]

Extending this analogy and applying it to the improvement efforts within organizations, the equivalent in an improvement effort would be like improving an engine so that the car can run faster, but not considering the impact speed might have on the brakes or the suspension. Too often I see improvements that don’t improve the performance of the organization as a whole, and even sometimes cause a problem somewhere else. All improvement efforts should improve the performance of the organization as a whole.

Problems and Suggestions

In teaching this principle, too often we run into confusion between “systemically” and “systematically.” “Systemically” means to think about the whole system, and the interactions and relationships within the system. “Systematically” means using or following a methodical system. Yes, as we follow standard work, we often have to think systematically too, but that is not what is meant by this principle.

This problem extends beyond just the understanding of students – it extends to translators too. Several times, professional translators have translated this principle as “think systematically.” This problem is exacerbated by having no available terminologies in the target language. For example, after several discussions with Japanese-speaking people familiar with the Shingo Model, we eventually settled on 「システムの相互依存について考える」which literally means “Think about the mutual dependencies within a system.” There was no easy way to translate this principle into Japanese.

Several suggestions have come forward to address this confusion. All of these suggestions focus on improvements that improve the whole, or in driving a holistic viewpoint. Let me share a few:

  • Improve the Whole System. This suggestion has the merit that it guides improvement efforts towards the whole – and not just the individual person or individual operation.
  • Look at the Whole System. This suggestion has the merit of driving a holistic viewpoint.
  • Think about the Whole System. This suggestion has the merit that it ties the principle to the body of work around systems thinking mentioned above, while maintaining the focus on the right kinds of improvement and the right viewpoint.


We are persuaded by the link to the body of work and will support a change from “Think Systemically” to “Think about the Whole System.”

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqEeIG8aPPk (as of January 2019) for a version of Russ Ackoff presenting this material, especially the segment 1:30-7:00 of the video.

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