How to Encourage Systemic Thinking

Posted on by CATALYSIS

Jigsaw is a harmony among the group will not be impossible.

When I was asked to write about one of the Shingo Principles, I immediately thought of my favorite-- “Think Systemically.” I’ll explain why it’s one of my favorites at the end.

How many times have you heard colleagues talking about their improvement work, excitement in their voice, but then begin to wonder if this work was done in a silo? Why? Because sometimes what has improved for them or their portion of the value stream can create more work for you or others that is not value added.  Or the work can sometimes impact work you do, and you were not queried about possible impacts or input into the process. When thinking systemically, this sort of occurrence and frustration is minimized or eliminated. 

Thinking systemically is having an understanding that processes and systems are often interdependent and connected. In the Shingo Model, this principle is categorized in the enterprise alignment dimension, along with create constancy of purpose.

To ensure that you are thinking systemically, here are some questions you should ask before starting to solve a problem or making an improvement.

What are the upstream and downstream impacts of this process?

Chances are that there are other departments, business units, or work groups that interact with the patient or customer before and after your work area does. These areas produce or own the upstream and downstream processes. If you “throw work over the wall” blindly, without consideration for the entirety of the system, it can have unintended consequences that create more problems to solve—both for customers and colleagues.

When working on solving a problem or an improvement idea, the team should consider the upstream and downstream processes and how a change might impact them. This could be as easy as going to another department and asking the question, or maybe you can pull some data to help you determine impacts. Either way, to ensure that you are thinking systemically make sure you can answer this question.

Who should have input on this issue?  

Asking this question will help you break out of your silo and assemble a team with representation from other areas of the value stream. Team members should consist of those who could be impacted by a change, those who are experiencing the problem, and possibly those who may have unique strengths that would be valuable to the team.

Many organizations use tools like Myers Briggs and Strengths Based Leadership as part of their personal and team development. If you have access to information like this for people on your team or at your organization, it can be useful in selecting members of your problem-solving team.

How does this improvement relate to True North?

Remember the principle think systemically is part of the enterprise alignment dimension. An organization is made up of many interconnected systems that are all working towards the same goal. So, when you begin to work on solving a problem or an improvement opportunity make sure that you can clearly articulate how what you are working on relates or impacts True North.

Ken Snyder of the Shingo Institute says, “Through understanding the relationships and interconnectedness within a system we are able to make better decisions and improvements.”

The next time you have identified a problem, ask yourself, “How does this relate to True North, what is the goal? Who else might this impact? Who else should have input on this issue?  Who might have insights or strengths that would be useful in looking at this issue from multiple angles?”  If these questions can be asked and answered, you are on your way to thinking systemically.

My why

Thinking Systemically has always been one of my favorite principles for one main reason—one of my most-used strengths is connectedness.  There is nothing more rewarding (at least for me) than to be able to look at a system in its entirety and be able to see how the pieces fit together.  The same holds true for interoffice relationships and customer relationships.  It’s kind of like the movements of a chess board (also strategic), where one anticipates how a single move will affect another one—now and in the future.

I’d love to hear your examples of thinking systemically, and how you have used your teams in improvements throughout the value stream.


Stephanie Van Vreede, Program Manager


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3 Responses to How to Encourage Systemic Thinking

Tony Heath says: 08/28/2019 at 8:40 pm

I was trained in systems thinking during the age of Gregory Bateson and his peers. This thinking serves me well as a lean (internal) consultant. I am always looking for connections among people and processes. My biggest successes have been due to connecting people. I sometimes think we are like Aspen, large organisms connected by a shared root structure.

Trish Livingstone says: 11/30/2020 at 1:44 am

I’ve worked for our province’s government for 23 years in health, education and now Justice, Corrections and Policing. While I clearly see the connection among the 3 systems I support now, I actually see government as one big system. We have cradle to grave impacts on citizens. Our inmates often struggle with chronic health issues, lack of literacy and low academic achievement. All of our systems are connected – and failing to provide what is needed in early life can have lasting, lifetime (or even multi-generational) impacts on individuals and negative impacts on other parts of the system.


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