System Thinking


This essay deals with the system thinking and the techniques and tools that are related. Also, include discussion regarding system life cycle process and based on some real time examples lets discuss the use of system thinking in solving large issues. We shall also discuss the differences between system thinking and the traditional form of analysis. Engineering risk and risk management tools in system thinking will be collaborated and explained in brief.

First of all, we need to dig into the concept of system thinking. It is an approach to analyze the process of the system by understanding the scope of a system. Also, relate the different parts of the system to form a large system working interrelated with the system’s constituent parts. Plan accordingly such that the system flow does not break. Earlier we have a traditional approach of breaking down the system into parts and plan each part, where we face a problem on integrating the whole. To overcome this scenario we go with system thinking approach which can be applied to any area of research.

A system can be an open or closed system. A closed system does not affect the environment whereas open system will have an effect on the environment. An open system depends on equipment, Natural resources and also employees in the organisation. In an open system the outputs are released into the environment, thus there exists an interrelation with the system components as a whole. In an open system, there is an exchange of energy with the environment, whereas no exchange of energy in the closed system. This focus of Open system theory should be of the adaptable way to the changes in the environmental conditions with or without the need of information processing. That is self-taught and self-feedback loop implementations.

General systems theory fundamental notion is its focus on interactions. Each element behaviour changes with the component with which it interacts, basically two components combine to form a new element. When this new element combines with other to form a larger system the behaviour changes. So, interrelations to be considered an effect of each component individually and in combination with other components also to be considered.

A system is made up of basic five elements which can be categorised as

  1. Objects: The major components, variables, subsystems, or elements that constitute a system are considered as objects. They exchange of information and energy are processed by these object within the system and with other objects. These object can be existed as a theoretical format but plays a crucial role.

  2. Attributes: These are the system properties which are used to measure effects or behaviours of the system.

  3. Relationships: These define the relationships between objects within the system. Sometimes the relationship between different systems also exist, for example, Open systems have relation with other systems.

  4. Boundaries: To restrict the system access. Differ from open to a closed system, boundaries are restricted to a closed system whereas permeable to open systems to cross the boundaries.

  5. Environmental Influences: Open system interacts with the environment around it. Whereas for a closed system also the environment within the system is large that there will be an influence of objects within itself.

Characteristics and behaviour of a system:

Every system itself a component of other large systems. This is what differs system thinking from traditional approaches. The system will self-correct themselves, so we should never consider a system as ideal. A system at an unstable state is highly chaotic and unpredictable. There takes time for a system to become stable as it changes based on the feedback loops making system predictive. In an open system, there exists multifinality, that is a single cause may have multiple outcomes. The output you get for a single component can be treated as a final product. But, when it is interrelated to other systems then it is just treated as an input.

The key concepts of system thinking that are to be considered are

Interconnectedness is the first principle to be considered. System thinking basically deals with the change of mindset to deal the system as a whole. System thinking to be in such a way that the system is completely interconnected and a change in single part will affect the whole system. Making it as a prior principle one should be careful while planning a final product.

Synthesizing the structure of the system is another essential principle which can be explained as, The system in interconnected but one should have a glance of the system as well as have a great understanding of every component and understanding of how these components are connected with each other to be analyzed. One should have a view of combining two or more components to form a new component.

The emergence of system behaviour to be considered. As the system itself is self-adaptable and changes with time, a system behaviour cannot be determined by understanding the parts and structure. The structure of a system keeps on changing, thus making even a small system also complex to understand. So, one should understand that prediction of the system behaviour is not that easy.

Feedback loops for a dynamic behaviour of the system. The feedback loop is that a system generates an output and the same output is acted as input to the same system. Basically, a system consists of more than one feedback loop. There are more feedback loops than parts in a system. Feedback loops help in system emerging.

Systems mapping is one of the major concepts where a system is mapped in many ways like analogue cluster mapping and complex digital feedback analysis. The main principle is to find the elements and map them in such a way that the interconnection between various parts of a system is understood.

A system approach to risk management:

Risk management is a wide concept and used in every project to find the risks that may be faced and reduce them in the initial stages only. But traditional risk management techniques are constrained only domain-specific which are no longer helpful. System dynamic theory can be applied nowadays which is more helpful. System dynamics more focus on the feedback loops. These are a new scenario of getting feedback loops and feeding the system and the system is more emerging and becoming adaptable to new changes. This is making a system more complex as well as feedback loops helping reduce management. These system dynamic strategies can be applied to any risk management problems. Major risk causing concepts can be found and can be reduced systematically. By applying the best techniques using system thinking will reduce the risk management and will act as a valuable aid to the organisation.

System thinking also supports portfolio, programme and Project Management to identify and understand the problem and enables full scope to be documented using the context. Stakeholder engagement increases a better understanding of the problem and increases commitment and there is a large scope for gathering solution requirements. Risk planning and mitigation are made comprehensive thus help in forecast final cost and schedule effectively. Improve the outcome by reducing unintended consequences and also ensure all the requirement are met. Portfolio relationships and dependencies with external elements can be found out. Assessing changes, prioritizing objectives, identify and prioritization of objectives can be done. Assessing what went as planned and what need to be modified are clearly understood.

System thinking helps in the organization maturity, that is how an organization improved by applying changes and achieving high performance. There are three approaches to analyze. Functional system approach which has an end to be achieved that is which is a simple one. Each organization will have many functional systems. Mainly considered as management systems such as an implementation of policies and plans. These are rational and event-based systems.

Structural system approach plays a role in improving the decision making within the organisation. This approach looks beyond the surface events. These can be considered as complicated where the cause and effect are predictable but indirectly caused.

Interpretive System Approach can handle both complex and messy systems by handling the human-designed systems and social systems. These include characteristics of both Functional and structural system approaches. This is a complex type where the cause and effect only be seen retrospectively.

While we apply this system thinking tools with real-time scenarios such as Texas City disaster and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, we would have stopped a lot of disasters. Project management of the organization should have planned according to system thinking approach. BP Texas City refinery explosion occurred in 2005, 15 people were killed and 180 were injured. The loss to the company was due to direct and indirect financial losses. Billions of dollars were given to the victims’ compensation as well as property damage was a major loss of production. There are many factors contributed to the disaster as per internal accident investigation and Chemical safety board. The reasons that led to this disaster was the hydrocarbon vapour cloud was ignited and violently exploded due to an ignition of a vehicle parked in that area. An absence of observability and the lack of ability to diagnose the hazardous situations may appear in the refinery led to major disaster. The safety diagnosability principles that support the development of a “living” and assumption of quantitative risk, and re-order risk priorities in real time can be analysed based on emerging hazards, and re-allocate defensive resources by applying feedback loops and making the system stable if the system thinking approaches are utilised in the planning of the system. The cause and effect analysis should have been done and a thorough risk assessment plans should have been applied.

BP deepwater horizon spill that occurred in 2010, this is considered as one of the largest oil spills in history. For such a large system thinking approach to be of open system approach. The cause and effect of any disaster to be properly noticed and a deep risk management strategies to be implemented. Five years earlier, the BP Texas City refinery disaster that happened did not teach any lessons. A system thinking approach is that analyses of the previous causes and analyse the different system's inputs and apply to the system. This approach should have followed in the Deepwater Horizon spill also. It took around five months to stop the oil flow and the well is completely shut. A prior analysis of risk and increase of organisational maturity from the previous disaster may help in avoiding this situation.


By considering all the above scenarios and different methodologies and techniques of system thinking in an organisation improvement we conclude that this approach helps in forming a stable system. Continuous improvement of a system through feedback loops and considering the interrelation of the systems to form a large system and risk management by analysing the previous outputs helps in a better organisation. Every system should follow system thinking methodologies and treat the organisation as an open system. Thus open system interacts with the environment around it and considering that the output effect the environment, necessary decisions to be implemented. The above-mentioned examples of Texas refinery and Deepwater Horizon spill would be avoided if a planned system thinking the approach is implemented. Failure in the risk assessments and adapting to the changes of planning led to the disasters. Same traditional approaches being used for planning. So, in future to avoid such type of disasters every organisation should follow system thinking approaches and thus making organisation stable and predictable considering the environment around it.