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Introduction to System Engineering Worksheet

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See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: Systems Thinking: Three System Archetypes Every Manager Should Know Article in IEEE Engineering Management Review · April 2018 DOI: 10.1109/EMR.2018.2844377 CITATIONS READS 12 414 1 author: Timothy Clancy Worcester Polytechnic Institute 19 PUBLICATIONS 34 CITATIONS SEE PROFILE Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects: Lean Pattern Models & General Principles View project Werther Effect in Mass Shootings View project All content following this page was uploaded by Timothy Clancy on 06 September 2021. The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file. 32 IEEE ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT REVIEW, VOL. 46, NO. 2, SECOND QUARTER, JUNE 2018 Systems Thinking: Three System Archetypes Every Manager Should Know —TIMOTHY CLANCY Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA 01609, USA IEEE DOI 10.1109/EMR.2018.2844377 Abstract—This paper gives a brief introduction to systems thinking and practical insights project managers and business leaders can use in day-today interactions. We describe three common systems archetypes: limits-togrowth, fixes-that-fail, and drifting-goals. We illustrate each structure with a description of how system structure drives system behavior in the context of a project-based organization trying to resolve delays. We provide examples of the archetype in other contexts as well as simple suggestions on how to use systems thinking to improve these scenarios. Further reading is suggested with additional sources. SPEAKING IN TONGUES Imanyseems at times that there are as methods to practice systems T thinking as there are definitions of what that exactly means. Indeed, introducing a special edition of System Dynamics Review on the topic of systems thinking, George Richardson opened with a quote of Tennyson: “a noise of tongues and deeds, a dust of systems and of creeds [1].” And that was in 1994. This can make applying systems theory insights into day-today business environments difficult for the uninitiated. This paper intends to shed some light on the subject by giving practical systems thinking insights to managers and practitioners they can apply in their work environments. We’ll introduce three distinct system archetypes: limits-togrowth, fixes-that-fail, and driftinggoals. I’ll use methods from the field of system dynamics [2, p. 5]. These methods provide a vocabulary, grammar and body of syntax to aid in discussing system behavior. System dynamics is also useful because: 1. They make system structure and how it generates behavior visually explicit. 2. Managers & practitioners should both be able to “see themselves” and their circumstances in the diagrams without the barriers of mathematical equations. WHAT IS SYSTEMS THINKING? To start, systems thinking is not about information technology (IT) systems or applications. Instead the term in this use refers to the holistic connections between different things and how those connections produce behavior in a complex adaptive system. Systems in this definition share three qualities: They consist of the interacting relationship between all things of interest related to a specific problem. Dynamics of a system appear over time. These are not pointvalues at an isolated snap-shot, but continuous behaviors that emerge, adapt, and change over time. They generate feedback effects that occur when dynamics loop back through an interactive connection to itself over time. Consider the depiction of a system shown in Figure 1([3, p. 8]): SYSTEMS THINKING: THREE SYSTEM ARCHETYPES EVERY MANAGER SHOULD KNOW The visible system in Figure 1 are the connections and interactions easily seen, counted and quantified. The latent system consists of connections and dynamics not easily seen or quantified. Both halves are equally important to the entire system. Just like in a status meeting the personalities and communication between those involved is just as important to understanding the outcome as what’s quantified on the report itself. WHAT IS A SYSTEM ARCHETYPE? A system archetype is a common set of visible and latent system interactions that produce certain behaviors that seem to occur often and widely. This is the power of systems thinking. It is the structure of the system archetype including the interactions, dynamics and feedback that emerges that is important. Not the specifics of the environment in which it operates. This means the same archetype are generalizable to different environments. Even if two cases are taken from different applications and domains, if they share a common dynamic structure and exhibit similar behaviors, they can be said to share the same “class” of systems thinking archetype [4, p. 93]. Even within business—system archetypes will appear commonly across seemingly different organizational functions: accounting, management, production, operations, sales, research—the topic of interest matters less than the system structure which generates the behavior. We selected the three system archetypes because they are all common in business and should be easily recognizable. They also serve as exemplars to introduce the concept of using system archetypes to encourage systems thinking. Further reading on archetypes not described here, of which there are dozens, can increase the tool-set leaders can call upon to improve their own systems thinking [5]. Figure 2 depicts one of the most common system archetype structures, called limits-to-growth [5, pp. 43–60]. We’re using it in the context of population at first before showing how it applies to business. System archetypes consist of five things: elements, links, polarities, feedback effects and loop-labels. The all-caps words in Figure 2 are the elements: births, populations, deaths and food scarcity. The arrows connecting elements show causal relationships in the system. We use solid and dashed lines to distinguish loops from one another but they have no special meaning. The symbol on the arrow is named “polarity” and shows the nature of the relationship between the two elements. A positive polarity (“þ” sign) indicates positive correlation. What happens to the earlier element will happen to the subsequent element. Taking the dashed-line loop first, the one on the 33 left of Figure 2 if births increase, then population increases. And if population increases, because of the arrow back to births with a positive polarity, then births increase as well. This relationship completes the loop and visualizes feedback. Births is not a stand-alone factor in this system. Birth influences population, and then population influences births in return. If births were to decrease, then population will also decline, and as population declines then births will decline as well. This example highlights an important theory of these system archetypes diagrams— they are depicting causal relationships in feedback. There may be a variety of influencing factors, but at the notional level if births increase, population will increase, and as we gain more people, soon we’ll have more births. This is the power of systems thinking – each individual link in a system should be simple, uncontroversial in its assumptions and agreed upon by stakeholders. But it is the combination of many such links Figure 1. Visible and latent systems (Source [3]). Figure 2. Population system structure. 34 interacting with another and the dynamics that appear with feedback over time that provides the power of systems thinking. We’ve already covered the dashed loop in Figure 2, but there’s also a second loop consisting of solid lines on the right side. In that loop as population increases, deaths increase. The arrow from deaths to population has a negative polarity (“” sign). This polarity demonstrates negative correlation, that the elements act in opposite ways to one another. So as deaths increase, population declines. If deaths were to decrease population would increase. Loop Feedback There are two kinds of feedback effects in systems thinking.
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