By Mary P. Murphy
IBM Leadership Series editor
There 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:
- Writing about single completed events,
- Writing about abstract concepts,
- Writing about collections of items,
- Writing about groups of completed events, including processes,
- Writing about propositions, and
- 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.