Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows is one of the books that has shaped my thinking as a quality professional, and I consider it one of the top 10 books for folks in the quality profession to read. If I ever try to lend you a copy, consider that a good thing.

The basic premise of system thinking is the notion that any force applied to the system has consequences. A well-designed system can absorb these forces and still maintain system functionality. A poorly designed system cannot absorb external forces, causing the system to collapse. A key take away of the book is that the systems we design do what they are designed to do, both positive and negative.

Ms. Meadows presents systems and models in ecosystem thinking in ways to avoid simplistic approaches and explains system oscillations and overshoots as examples of system instability. The book explains the attributes of systems:

  1.   Resilience – ability for a system to adjust. The opposite of resilience – fragility, causes the system to be unresponsive to change, and exposes the system to potential of collapse.
  2.   Self-Organization – ability of system to adjust to new demands and circumstances. Ability of the system to orient itself and build complex structures from simple building blocks is viewed as key characteristic.
  3. Hierarchy – describe how complex system can be broken into smaller, simpler organization that can function autonomously. The opposite of hierarchy is one complex organism that cannot be productive of parts of it is not performing at the level required for the smooth operation of the system.

The book has a ton of good approaches on how to solve system problems. The identification of a leverage point in the system describes how to affect system behavior in a most effective way.  The list of leverage point includes quantitative things such as numbers, creating of buffers in the system, as well as the introduction of new feedback loops and general system flexibility.

Read this book. Good quality culture understands the systems we build and how they impact the individuals who use them. The tools in this book serve as a good framework, and one I think you will come back to again and again.


23 thoughts on “Thinking in Systems

  1. This is a very timely post for me. I’ve been thinking about good systems design and a bug in the back of my head brought me back to my days in Chemistry class. I have found myself pondering about titration buffers as an metaphor for good systems design. It sounds like this book might be just what I’m looking for. Thanks Jeremiah!


    1. The author does an excellent job discussing buffers in relationship to stock and flow and how that impacts systems. Not only to the positive (strengthening the buffer), but the potential negative consequences, including inflexibility. This is part of a larger section of stock and flow that really helps understand what makes a good system.


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