Are You Thinking Systemically or Systematically?

Words matter. The terms systemically and systematically are sometimes used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. While they sound similar and have the same root, “system,” these words have different meanings. As we are planning the 2022 Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit around the theme “Think Systemically, Act with Purpose,” I began to put more thought around the meaning of each word and how they relate to building a culture of continuous improvement.

“Think systemically” is one of the Shingo principles of organizational excellence. Shingo defines this as having a thorough understanding of the relationships and interconnections within a system that enables better decision-making and improvements. While systematic thinking and systemic thinking both have a place in a continuous improvement culture, it is important to understand the difference between them.

Here are some thoughts to help explain the difference between systematic and systemic thinking:

Systematic Thinking

The term systematically means working according to a fixed plan, system, or methodology. I like to think of things like standard processes as being more systematic. If a team is acting systematically, their work is methodical, planful, or strategic. Some behaviors that characterize this are:


  • Documenting and following standard work
  • Using process observation or process check sheets to maintain and improve standard work
  • Creating and utilizing leader standard work



Systemic Thinking

The term systemically means working in a way that relates to or affects the whole of something. I like to think about it as considering the entire organization when making improvements and problem-solving. This can also mean to consider how all the systems in an organization – such as the management system, quality system, financial system, etc. – align with all the other systems. If a team is taking a comprehensive view of their work, and consider the pervasiveness of decisions, this reflects systemic thinking.

Some behaviors that exemplify thinking systemically are:

  • Considering upstream and downstream effects of a process change
  • Linking improvement work to the organization’s True North metrics or goals
  • Incorporating connections and viewpoints from outside of units, departments, and silos in a team’s work, strategies, and planning
  • Respecting impacts of planning or strategies in other areas

Thinking systemically and thinking systematically both have their place and benefits in a continuous improvement environment. The Shingo Institute says, “Through understanding the relationships and interconnectedness within a system we are able to make better decisions and improvements.”

Learn how others are “Thinking Systemically, Acting with Purpose” at the 2022 Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit.

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