Systems Thinking Empowers Effective Problem Solving

This article is the second of a two-part series.

No matter your organizational leadership level, problem-solving is an inherent responsibility.

And systems thinking empowers effective problem-solving. 

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing ‘patterns of change’ rather than ‘static snapshots.”

– Peter Senge

In the article Systems Thinking: Elevating Your Strategic Perspective, we encourage extending beyond the typical organizational hierarchy to understand the interrelationships across, between, and within business functions. This systems view explores upstream inputs (e.g., skilled labor), processes (execution of tasks, activities, and procedures within the function), and downstream outputs (e.g., quality products and services).  

Issues can occur throughout the system, presenting the opportunity for cross-functional collaboration, analysis, and problem-solving.

Why Infuse Problem Solving with Systems Thinking

#1 Explore Root Causes, Not Symptoms.

Move beyond visible, surface symptoms of a problem to identifying and addressing the underlying root cause of the issue. Taking actions based on symptoms could lead to temporary fixes that do not address the problem’s essence. The solution becomes a band-aid fix, so the problem surfaces again.

Action. Employ the Five Whys Method (attributed to the Toyota Motor Corporation) to drill below the surface to discover the underlying cause of the problem. For example, the presenting problem situation is that a bank account regularly enters into a negative balance. Checks bounce.

  • Why? Incoming payments are not deposited promptly.
  • Why? Payments are processed slowly.
  • Why? Processors manually match invoices to payments.
  • Why? Standard operating procedures (SOPs) require manual review and matching of invoice payments.
  • Why? The procedure is a carry-over from a prior accounting process.

Tip! Educate your team about the Five Whys Method in advance. When drilling to this level of detail, using why as your lead could unintentionally create a defensive environment – if the team does not know the rationale for this approach.

#2 Increase the Possibilities of Complete Solutions and Reduce Unintentional Consequences.

When you do not explore the problem with a full-scope lens from beginning to end, it’s possible to zoom in on an isolated aspect of the issue without considering the interdependencies, interactions, patterns, trends, and impacts. As a result, the proposed solution may not consider the ripple effects on other parts of the system – how various factors influence each other –  inadvertently creating new problems or worsening the existing issue.

Action. Consider the broad scope of the problem beyond what is within your immediate span of control. Involve stakeholders from different parts of the organization (or business group if the issue is isolated to a function) to collaborate and gain easily overlooked critical perspectives. Doing so proactively positions you to collectively explore various solutions and relative consequences while getting support and buy-in for actions to resolve the issue.

#3 Promote Solutions with Long-Term Sustainability, Not Only Short-Term Gains.

When solving a problem that significantly impacts the business function, it is prudent to consider long-term implications and short-term advantages. That could include exploring the influence of internal dynamics (such as a changing generational workforce) and external environment factors (such as laws and regulatory changes) on the problem and potential solution. 

Action. Determine how the problem and proposed solutions will stand up over time. Explore the implications from a holistic system view perspective with the following starter questions:

❓Is this a one-time problem with no lasting upsides or downsides? Is any action required now? 

❓What are the potential long-term implications if no action is taken?

❓Do the benefits of implementing a proposed solution outweigh the long-term effects?

❓How does the agreed-upon solution create a stepping stone for executing future strategies? 

❓Does the solution offer significant gains now, but there are materially diminishing benefits in the long term? How are the short-term gains and waning benefits acceptable trade-offs?

Create discovery questions to explore the pros and cons of potential solutions.  Engage stakeholders in this process to gather diverse perspectives and better understand impacts across the system.

Call to Action

As you lead and manage your business, consider how integrating systems thinking could become your differentiator. 

What one strategic thinking action might you incorporate to become even more effective in problem-solving? 

Want help? Contact us.

Lillian Davenport, SPHR, SHRM – SCP, CTACC, Principal, End View Solutions, LLC

Lillian Davenport

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Lillian Davenport is a coach, consultant, and leadership strategist. Her signature program, M3 LeadershipSM, prepares you to enhance and develop your self-awareness, embrace your inner strength, and lead with confidence, courage, and impact.

Lillian’s career as a human resources leader includes roles at JPMorgan Chase & Co., Woodforest National Bank, and American International Group, Inc. (AIG), where she leveraged employee relations, and diversity, equity, and inclusion expertise in leadership development.