Systems thinking is an entire discipline that helps individuals see and understand interdependent parts of a whole system more comprehensively. It is an approach that differs from traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements. Rather, system thinking is all about studying the linkages of each interdependent part, mapping them out, and in doing so taking a more holistic view of how systems are working. This also, for the sake of organizational culture, results in new ways of learning and innovation at the firm level.
Research in systems thinking can apply to many different sectors such as environmental, medical, political, and social avenues. The point is really to understand complex situations, or puzzles, better, and come up with solutions that affect outcomes in that particular system.
Causal Map Looping
One way to better understand systems thinking is through causal loop mapping. This is really just a visual mapping technique that any member of an organization can draw on a whiteboard or present to other colleagues to better understand systems thinking. It works by employing feedback loops to show the interconnected variables causing system outcomes.
The point of the causal map loop is really just to tell a story of how each interdependent part of the system is working.
For example, if we think about how a bike messengers’ delivery time affects the overall reputation of the service they ride for, we can draw a causal loop map to identify the interdependent parts:
Part 1) How easily the food/beverages stay put while in bike bag
Part 2) How fast the bike messenger can get to their customer
Part 3) How satisfied the customer is with the delivery time of their food/beverage
Part 4) How many stars on the App store the bike messenger service receives
Systems thinking allows to break down each part to better understand outcomes. If the messenger service gives bike messengers indestructible, durable bags that clip onto a bike messengers handlebar, for example, that might increase the speed the bike messenger can travel at, which might affect customer satisfaction, which will have an ultimate effect on the outcome of how many stars the mobile application receives.
Systems thinking and affected supply chains
Applying such an approach to the U.S. dairy industry in light of the Covid-19 pandemic might provide some perspective. In April of 2020, several dairy farmers in Wisconsin received a call from logistics managers ordering them to dump their milk. Because restaurants had shut down all across the country due to Covid-19, and truckers with established trucking routes to each restaurant wouldn’t be able to shift to supermarkets, it created a serious waste of dairy products and lost revenue for dairy farmers.
One farmer in Wisconsin dumped 4,700 gallons of milk from his 480 cows each day in that first week of April.
This is an environmental, social, and economic situation that could benefit from a systems thinking approach and how to look at the interdependent parts of the dairy shipping industry to adjust shipping routes to retail outlets and supermarkets. This is important because also around the time when farmers were dumping their dairy products in April, supermarket shelves were nearing empty, exacerbating the food supply and demand crisis.
In drawing a causal loop map, the DFA might have been able to come up with a method to re-route their dairy shipments to food banks or other outlets without having to pay lots of money for relabeling equipment. This option would have been viable because the highly perishable goods wouldn’t have to go to waste and food banks have less specific requirements for their products than retail supermarkets.
Sometimes the simple issue is a knowledge gap or research gap for respective industries, which is why this non-traditional way of conducting an analysis should be incorporated more often. The process of going through a causal loop map might only be used in smaller niche social sectors but has major implications for larger corporations as well.