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By Mary P. Murphy
IBM Leadership Series editor

mpmurphy_3There I was, in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, one of Europe’s busiest passenger airports, after 15 hours of travel from Syracuse to Detroit to Amsterdam but with a full day to go between me and my final destination. Based on past experience, I was sure my bag, which was checked through to Florence, would not be there when I arrived.  But, with a few quick keystrokes, an Amsterdam KLM agent pinpointed my bag and said, “no problem,” and indeed, it was one of the first bags to emerge onto the carousel in Florence 13 hours later.

I tell this story because we had just finished publishing a Smarter Planet Leadership Series story about Schiphol Airport’s new baggage handling system, and it was great to experience its success first hand (especially because it meant having my suitcase during my vacation). To create this system, Schiphol had to overcome severe physical plant constraints and coordinate the diverse stakeholders and operational groups involved in making sure passengers stay connected with their bags. It struck me, there in the airport, just how important it was for the Schiphol team to think systemically in creating the new baggage handling system.

Systems thinking is the ability to consider an issue from a variety of viewpoints, to understand the diverse and interconnected components that go into a situation and how a change to one of those components will ripple through the entire system. In Schiphol’s case, the existing baggage system was fragmented, with Schiphol, KLM and their suppliers each controlling their own aspect of the process. Integrating the human constituents and the many system components that include transport management and flow control, screening for explosives, logistics for routes and destinations, storage, maintaining physical equipment, such as conveyor belts and cranes, and so on required intense systems thinking on the part of the airport and KLM leaders. To consider one small example, imagine the cascading effect in a major transfer hub like Schiphol on potentially dozens of connecting flights if just one flight is late.

In August, I wrote about systems thinking as a requirement of the changing nature of leadership based on my observations of Leadership Series stories; the stories we’ve published since then, such as Premier, Mobile County Public Schools, Hamilton County and Centerstone Research Institute only serve to reinforce that conviction.

To get to the “how” of systems thinking, I’d like to suggest we borrow from classical rhetoric, specifically from “Discovery Through Questioning: A Plan for Teaching Rhetorical Invention,” by Richard Larson and published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

“Invention” in classical rhetoric is the process of discovery, to uncover thoughts systematically before writing or speaking. As a writer, I’ve used it for years as a discipline to prepare for an interview or outline a story. Its purpose is in essence to provide a rigor and discipline for brainstorming, and its structure begins with a series of “topics” for thinking, including, according to Larson’s article:

  1. Definition,
  2. Writing about single completed events,
  3. Writing about abstract concepts,
  4. Writing about collections of items,
  5. Writing about groups of completed events, including processes,
  6. Writing about propositions, and
  7. Writing about questions

For each of these topics, Larson provides a list of heuristics, or questions, that serve as a thinking checklist. For example, in topic number four, above, “writing about groups of completed events, including processes,” some of the heuristics are

  • What have the events [processes] in common?
  • If they have features in common, how do they differ?
  • How are the events [processes] related to each other (if they’re not part of a chronological sequence)? What is revealed by the possibility of grouping them in this way (these ways)?
  • What possible correlations can be found among the several sub-groups?
  • What implications, if any, does the group of events have? Does the group point to a need for some sort of action?

It strikes me that many of these would help provoke a systems view of any challenge, and if we could craft a leadership set of topics with a set of checklist questions, we could be well on our way to a systems thinking methodology.

I asked my brother, an airline pilot, if the use of checklists that characterize his profession has, over time, changed the way his mind works, and he didn’t hesitate in responding affirmatively. “I know that I will never panic in an emergency situation because I immediately and calmly think through my options.”

So food for thought on the ‘how’ of systems thinking.

When I was in Schiphol on my return flight home, I mentioned to an airport agent that IBM had just published a story about their baggage system, and she said, “We’re very proud of it. It’s winning all sorts of awards.” She happened to be in security, but apparently even that airport “system” was involved or at least aware of the new accomplishment.

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April 23, 2012
3:50 am

Did you know that more than ten people a year are killed by vending machines?

Posted by: seo optimizavimas
April 13, 2012
10:57 am

Banging your head against a wall uses 150 calories an hour. :)

Posted by: kaip padidinti svetaines lankomuma
March 7, 2012
5:40 am

POPULAR MYTH: Green buildings cost more. (Hint – they don’t.) If you’re about to stop reading and skip to another article, stick with us – this is a crucial point: green buildings don’t cost more.

Posted by: forex trading strategies and systems
March 6, 2012
5:09 am

Green technologies is easy writing. Just need some understanding how it works and you will be able to write articles.

Posted by: kaip numesti svorio
December 1, 2011
12:35 pm

Checklists: it’s the end of my semester, and I have all sorts of thinking checklists in play so that I can get to the greedy Christmas checklists!

Posted by: Arab
November 23, 2011
10:51 am

Right on, Mary. It squares with what I always liked about the Isocratean notion of rhetoric: knowing what to do and what to say in a given case, in the sense of “fitness” for the occasion. One cannot know the “what” without first coming to grips with “how” to arrive at it. Isocrates believed this ability to manage well any circumstances which may arise as evidence of an educated person.

Posted by: Dan Murphy, Ph.D.
November 22, 2011
1:17 pm

Thanks Mary. This is important. If this is going to be the SMART Decade, we all need to focus on thinking systemically. Please permit me to repeat your definition with comment. “Systems thinking is the ability to consider an issue from a variety of viewpoints, to understand the diverse and interconnected components that go into a situation and how a change to one of those components will ripple through the entire system.”

First, the fact that you are emphasizing the “how” and provide some heuristics from Robert Larsen, imply, systems thinking is not just “the ability” but a “learned ability.” We can all get better at it—and probably most of us should.

Expressed but perhaps not as immediately clear is the portion of the definition that refers to the ability to “consider an issue from a variety of viewpoints.”

“A variety of viewpoints” indicates that the issues or systems we are looking at are neither objective nor fixed. There are a number of possible patterns and interconnections that are determined by the viewer. This adds another layer of complexity in that it requires the viewers not only to be able to take another’s perspective but that we must be consciously aware of our own frames of reference. These lenses will determine what we see, how we interpret what we see, and the importance we place on the consequences of what we see.

Leadership and thinking systemically require a good deal of self-awareness. Again, thank you Mary for helping me and others to think deeper about thinking systemically.

Posted by: Jack Beach
November 22, 2011
11:59 am

I’m going to read this again, as you are giving me a lot to think about, systems, writing, and I can see so many “mini” systems in my life I’ll apply this to. Thanks Ms. Murphy!

Posted by: Joan
November 22, 2011
11:58 am

Wonderful post Mary. Very applicable to the work that is going on with Non-Profits here in Philly. Keep them coming.

Posted by: Patrick Oleskey
November 22, 2011
10:44 am

Wonderful connections between the theoretical systems information you share and the practical way it effected your life. Terrific blog MAry!!

Posted by: Annie perrin
November 22, 2011
10:40 am

Wouldn’t it be great to capture and nurture the natural inquisitiveness of our children and learn from them. Great teachers already do this, growing creative, critical thinkers for the future.

Posted by: Margaret
November 22, 2011
2:25 am

That’s an excellent insight

Posted by: Suresh
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