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April 28, 2023

An Introduction to the Systems Approach

By H. William Dettmer

There is no question that in our age there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in

which society is run. Probably at no point in the history of man has there been so much

discussion about the rights and wrongs of the policy makers...[Citizens have] begun to

suspect that the people who make the major decisions that affect our lives don’t know

what they are doing... They don’t know what they are doing simply because they have

no adequate basis to judge the effects of their decisions. To many it must seem that we

live in an age of moronic decision making.

C. West Churchman

The Systems Approach (Introduction) [1:vi]

Sounds like Churchman is talking about us today, doesn’t it? The preceding quotation comes from the

introduction to his seminal book on systems thinking, The Systems Approach, written in 1968. That’s sad

testimony to the fact that few decision makers in the world have learned much about complex systems in

the last 37 years. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “Man will occasionally stumble over the

truth, but usually he just picks himself up and continues on.”

We’ve been “continuing on” for four decades. It’s time to go back and revisit that truth we stumbled over

in 1968. We can snicker at the fact that life seemed so much simpler then. The world has “gotten smaller” as travel,
communication, the information age, and the Internet have combined to connect people and societies as never be-
fore. As economies have evolved from regional to national to transnational to global, our organizations have grown
in size and complexity. It is nearly impossible for the people running them to fully understand what goes on
“where the rubber meets the road” in nations, governments, and companies.

Analysis versus Synthesis

Since the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), the accepted approach to dealing with increasing com-
plexity is to try to reduce it into manageable “bites” and address them in isolation. This approach is referred to as
analysis. We analyze a complex situation or issue by trying to break it down into component pieces and consider
each in isolation from the others. This kind of thinking has its roots in analytic geometry, where one basic axiom is
that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Think about that for a moment. The underlying assumption behind
this conclusion is that all of the parts are essentially independent of one another.

But although this mathematical thinking might apply to bricks and other inanimate objects, it fails when ap-
plied to dynamic, homeostatic, or cybernetic systems [2:28-31]which generally include any organic systems, or
those where human beings have a role. And unfortunately such systems are the ones that exert the most influence
on our lives. We see the failure of the analytical approach all the time: The Rohr Corporation’s Riverside, Califor-
nia, plant recorded a 55% increase in profits in 1996. Great news, if all you focus on is short-term profits. When
you look at the larger system, you see the reason for that increase is better “efficiency” (meaning cost cutting) tem-
porarily had a greater impact than the 3% decline in sales. Or, as the corporate treasurer enthusiastically observed,
“Costs have come down quicker than our revenue has decreased.” [3:G-1]. (I’m sure the 3,500 people laid off at
Riverside by Rohr in the preceding few years are immensely gratified to know that!) The Rohr story is a classic
example of self delusion by analytical thinking.

If an analytical approach to management is counter-productive, what should we be doing instead? A holistic,
or whole system approach is considerably better suited to the kinds of complex organizations we usually encounter
today. What’s the difference between an analytical and a systems approach? The systems approach represents syn-
thesisthinking with an integrated perspective about the whole enterprise.

An Introduction to the Systems Approach


Posted by ACASA on April 28, 2023 at 08:08 PM in blog post | Permalink


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