Systems Thinking: An Introduction to June’s Articles

In 1990, a text titled “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of a Learning Organization” written by Peter Senge was published.  It was meant as a framework to transform the effectiveness of businesses by referring to them as “learning organizations.”  At the time, the preferred method of business improvement was known as Six Sigma (1987), which focused on improving processes, decreasing tolerance levels, or increasing productivity.  Even though the components of process improvement have been employed as far back as 1798 when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and continued through Henry Ford, W. Edwards Deming, and Philip Crosby (, constructs such as the Fishbone Diagram and the “Five Whys” continue to be used to optimize efficiencies in manufacturing and service industries alike.

But, as Einstein has been quoted as saying, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  The thinking used, from the assembly line to the scientific method to bloom’s taxonomy, involves process thinking.  For instance, to see how defects can be diminished in parts for automobiles, samples of products can be taken from the production line at certain intervals for examination and analysis.  If there are three shifts producing these parts, then samples can be taken throughout the day at certain times, providing “snapshots” of data to compare them to an optimally produced sample.  Deviations from the norm can be recorded to see if there are circumstances where samples fall outside an acceptable range (+/- 3 standard deviations), and then corrections can be applied to the conditions where those samples were produced.

Systems thinking requires a change in that mindset.  It opts for recognizing patterns of change rather than, as Peter Senge puts it, “static ‘snapshots’,” and advocates “seeing interrelationships rather than things.”  Systems thinking examines the whole, rather than the parts of the whole, since all parts of the system need to function optimally to produce an optimal result.  Without the realizations brought about by systems thinking, it can be argued that if simply one thing is “fixed,” then all will be well again.  Unfortunately, faith-based schools have seen the “we only need one thing” mindset be incredibly detrimental to their continued existence.  It’s not as simple as fixing one thing; there are no “silver bullet” solutions.

In faith-based schools, it’s been a long-held belief that if there was more money available, then teachers could be paid more, more financial aid could be provided to parents, and improved technology could be infused into the curriculum.  But all the money in the world won’t help if parents of prospective students are not aware of the school, the dedication of the teachers, and the academic and activity excellence offered in a welcoming and caring environment.  Too many times, a faith-based school is offered a Web page of an affiliated church’s Web site, rather than having its own interactive, responsive and modern looking and functioning Web site.  The parent thinks, “If the school can’t put resources into a great online presence, then how can they provide the technology that students require today?”  Perhaps the parent visits the school with their child and they both have a great experience while there, and they can afford the tuition, too.  However, the school doesn’t follow-up with them, and simply expects the parents will come back…and then are surprised when they don’t.  While all of this sounds like money is at the root of all these issues, the reality is that there are components which are missing from the whole experience of the school.   In other words, how can a school continue to be an excellent school when the processes which comprise the whole school are not excellent, or, may be non-existent?  ALL (bold enough?) elements of the experience of the school need to be striving to be excellent if the whole is expected to be excellent.

Note also that there are five elements, according to Senge, to a successful learning organization:

  • Systems thinking;
  • Team learning – which can be considered to be the process of professional development in knowing how teams work.  For more about this, see Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team“;
  • Shared vision – and not just a known mission, so that all members of the school can be working toward the same goal;
  • Mental models – which teachers are very familiar with, such as spaced repetition, metacognition, and learning styles; and
  • Personal mastery – which can considered to be professional development for each individual person to the point that one can be as best they can be for the role they fulfill within the organization, or to take their learning to the next level.

While all five elements are necessary, the starting point is personal mastery, which leads to mental models, which leads to shared vision, which leads to team learning, which leads to systems thinking, which then leads back to personal mastery.  Further, each element has an effect on each of the other elements.  Notice how the “process” starts at the bottom and gets to the top, and the top leads back to the bottom!

Over the next four weeks, several selected videos regarding systems thinking in an educational institution will be offered.  Since systems thinking (or ST) is to assist in making businesses learning organizations, then it makes all the sense in the world that learning organizations should become adept at systems thinking.