The Power Of Systems Thinking 

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“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

I wrote an article on systems thinking a few years ago. It was one of the most important articles I wrote for several reasons. However, the article was one of my least-read posts. People are much more interested in human interest stories. I took the post down because of little interest.

Time after time, the most popular posts on my blog are about people’s lives. I love human interest stories as well.  My favorite kind of writing is to highlight incredible life stories and accomplishments.

You can see or feel where this post is going next.

A Boring But Important Topic

Although I love human interest stories, other important articles sometimes need our attention for various reasons. 

Taking a systems approach to solving problems is the most important article I can write to assist in making positive change in just about any area of life, including running and coaching improvements.                                                                                 

I will give specific running and coaching improvement examples in my next post using the principles outlined in this article.  However, in part one of a series of articles, I focus on why systems thinking and formal process improvement projects are essential to any team's short- and long-term success.  

Mistakes and the root causes of problems are easily hidden because of the lack of systems and formal process improvement thinking in the problem-solving process. 

The wrong person is often blamed when systems thinking is not used because the problem’s root cause (s) is hidden from sight. I will explain my point of view on this topic in a minute.

In my volunteer work, I am helping a person behind the scenes solve a big problem. Once again, my recent volunteer project prompted me to discuss the importance of systems thinking and process improvement efforts, no matter the profession.

Fix The Problem, Don’t Fix The Blame On The Wrong Person Or Team

Let me give one example from my career where the wrong people were blamed for problems because people did not understand or see how the entire process worked.

One section of an organization I worked for looked very productive; let's call them the "star team." They produced more of their products and widgets than any other group. This team appeared stellar on the surface and got all the organizational kudos.                                                                                                                 

Another group in the same organization only had 50 percent of the productivity of the most productive group, the star team.

After documenting the entire process workflow from A to Z, we discovered that the star team processed the most straightforward products to produce. 

Before we documented the process, this was the first time anyone had looked at how the workload was distributed to the various work teams.

After documenting all the process steps, the least productive group’s production was easily explained, and the star team's productivity was also explained.

The seemingly least productive team took on the most challenging and complex products to produce, which took three times as long to make as the star teams easier to create products and widgets.

The most productive group, the star team, was seen as the heroes on the surface for years because of their perceived productivity.

Managers were ready to fire some people in the seemingly least productive group. However, the star team was cherry-picking the most accessible and straightforward products to produce.

When we discovered the problem, we devised a fair and efficient workload distribution system consisting of a mix of easy and hard products to produce for all working groups.                                 

In other words, the products were evenly distributed between complex and easy products. We also eliminated a lot of non-value-added steps in the process that helped all teams become more productive.

What happened after we tested the new process?

After changing and measuring the effectiveness of the new workload distribution system, the seemingly less productive team became more or just as effective as the star team!

I can give you case after case of processes like this example I’ve helped fix over my lifetime. You fix problems more fully when you look under the hood of the entire system to see what is happening.

There is only one way to solve issues fully: by reviewing the process as a whole.

Innocent people might have lost their jobs if we did not look under the hood to see the root causes of the problem by creating a workflow that documented all the steps between sections in the process. 

How many people have been blamed for poor performance because the whole truth was buried unintentionally in process step detail?

Teams Typically Are Set Up In Silos In Many Organizations Unintentionally                                                                            

Some staff in organizations typically work in silos without knowing enough about what another section or team does daily.

A decision in silo number one almost always impacts silo two, silo three, silo four, and so forth.                                           

A decision made upstream in a process almost always somehow affects others downstream in the same process.                                 

Think about how your decisions impact others in the process who you may or may not talk to much each day.

Make a list of people (process stakeholders) impacted by your decisions and changes in a process to mitigate misunderstandings. Then, ask others what impacts your decisions have on them before final decisions are made.                 

Remember, silo one may look like the hero because the real problems in the process are buried, like the example I gave about the star team above. After all, the left hand only knows what the right hand is doing if all steps are clearly understood between sections or teams.

Documenting how the process steps work from Step A to Step Z between all silos fixes the real problems and makes things much more transparent and efficient. 

If there are no procedures or workflows between sections or groups, the real problems are most likely not being fully addressed, or the wrong people or teams are being falsely blamed in some aspect of the work process.                           

Process problems are sometimes like microorganisms you can't see until they are seen clearly under the lens of the improvement microscope.

Why Am I Motivated By Systems And Process Improvement Thinking?

Some root causes of my Nephew’s death were poor handoffs between organizational work sections, poor communication, and unclear process steps between sections.

The left hand did not know what the right hand was doing in the process where he sought help. Said another way, Silo A did not fully understand what Silo B and Silo C did in their daily work process. Because of the lack of coordination of work tasks due to poorly documented process flows in work silos, my Nephew paid the ultimate price.

I’ve also seen innocent people fired or disciplined because the real problems were hidden in the details of the unknown process steps.

Innocent people are sometimes misunderstood because no one took the time to document how all steps in the process worked together. 

Over the years, I have witnessed kids and adults stressed out, depressed, or quitting an activity altogether because activities are not coordinated between sections or teams well in various organizations.                                                                                                    

On a more positive note, I’ve seen organizations and teams go from average to world-class when their paradigm changed about the importance and priority of systems and process improvement thinking.   

I've also seen increased joy, mutual understanding, encouragement, less stress, improved efficiency, and incredible teamwork when systems thinking and process improvement becomes part of the culture of an organization or team.

Some Final Words

To reach your God-given potential as an organization, team, or an individual requires careful planning, checking your ego at the door for the sake of others as you seek to improve, and a never-ending commitment to becoming the best you are capable of becoming with the tools and resources you have in front of you.

Doing what you want to be done for you in a process is an excellent way to approach systems thinking and process improvement projects.  

The Golden Rule is crucial to developing any system, customer service, and process improvement effort. Matthew 7:12 says,  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Doing for others what you want to be done for you is the heart of process improvement and systems thinking. Systems thinking and genuinely looking for better ways to do things is ultimately love for our fellow man in action. 

Hopefully, I’ve painted a picture of the importance of systems and process improvement thinking. If not, I will keep trying; it’s that important. Building better processes to help all in your team or organization is how championships are made in all walks of life. 

In my next post, I’ll give specific examples of applying systems thinking and process improvement to running and coaching.


Coach Weber

Philippians 4:13


The road to any championship in life requires transparency, reviewing and improving systems, and a commitment to always getting better. Finding the root causes of challenges that stand in the way of your next breakthrough is essential to success.                                                                                                                                                     

Systems thinking and process improvement projects are the tools that help you reach the next level, whether you are a billion-dollar corporation or a small non-profit just trying to survive. 


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