Summary of Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

Do you know what defines a system? You only need to look at yourself in the mirror to see how a system works. Your heart pumps blood around your body, oxygenating organs and enabling their function. The pupils of your eye allow light through so that it can be focused on your retina before an image can be formed in the brain. Every part of your body works together to keep you alive and healthy. 

Like so, a company can also be considered a system. The different departments work together for the overall functioning of the company. Can you identify any other systems? This book summary will teach you how. 

In this book summary, readers will discover:

  • What is a system?
  • Why feedback in a system is important
  • What makes a good system
  • Problems with systems and how to fix them
  • How you can understand systems

Key lesson one: What is a system?

A system is defined as being a set of things working together, all connected to achieve a common purpose. These elements that work together can be visible or intangible. For example, you can touch the different parts of a tree but you can’t touch the knowledge one has. Whatever type of element it is, they are all connected by relationships. Using the same examples, the relationships connecting the elements of a tree are the chemical reactions that occur and the movement of water. Whereas with knowledge, the relationships connected could be college graduation or level of employment. Everything is connected in a system. 

The purpose of a system is defined by its behaviour and not its goals. This means that actions speak louder by words. What a system does defines its purpose, not what it says it wishes to achieve. It is also important to note that elements in a system may change but its relationships and purpose remains the same. A good way to remember this is to think of a soccer team. The lineup for a game can change but the relationships between the different positions and the common purpose of winning remain the same.   

Lastly, the behaviour of a system can be broken down into stocks and flows. Stocks in a system are the elements that can be counted as money in a bank and items in a store. Flows refer to the change in stocks over time and can be further referred to as inflows and outflows. For example purchases and sales.

Key lesson two: Why feedback in a system is important

In a system, it is understandable that the stocks and flows are continuously changing. When this occurs, it is said to cause feedback. There are different forms of feedback. A balancing feedback refers to a force that stabilizes the difference between the actual and desired levels of stock. This type of feedback usually has a chain of rules or laws that deal with levels of stock and has the ability to change it. It’s kind of like how an oven manages the change in temperature when the door is opened. It loses heat and therefore has to heat up again until it reaches the correct temperature. 

The next form of feedback is reinforcing feedback. This type of feedback produces more or less of what already exists. Much like money in a savings account continues to gain interest and therefore, more money. This reinforcing feedback has the potential to produce constant growth or destruction. These two feedback mechanisms form the basis of important system structures. Just consider the human population, for example. The reinforcing feedback is birth rates where new babies are born, grow up and have children of their own – therefore there is a constant growth in population numbers. The balancing feedback to the population is death. If population numbers continue to increase, then death due to insufficient resources or disease acts as the balancing feedback. 

Therefore, systems need feedback mechanisms as a sort of stabilizing factor. 

Key lesson three: What makes a good system

There are particular systems that run exceptionally well. Our bodies are one of them, along with the planet’s ecosystems and even the well-oiled machines in a production plant. But what makes these systems stand out? 

Well, for starters, most good systems are resilient. They are able to adapt to changing conditions and can recover quickly when transitions are made. However, what people should not do is underestimate its importance. The next component of a good system is the ability to self-organize. With this ability, systems can learn and evolve on their own – much like how a fertilized egg has the ability to become a complete human. 

As systems construct new and complex components, they begging to naturally organize themselves in a hierarchy. This is evident in most systems as you begging to notice small subsystems that make up bigger subsystems. Hierarchies are somewhat essential as they ensure that each system deals with enough information and does not become overly burdened. Think of it like delegation in a company. A manager delegates to his staff members to ensure that he does not get distracted from his important work. 

Key lesson four: Problems with systems and how to fix them

Now that you understand a bit more about what a system is and how it works, they seem pretty straightforward. However, problems start to come in when people mistakenly focus on their outputs and not the way they work over time. This is an easy mistake to make, to be honest, because outputs or results are visible. The actual behaviour of the system is a bit more complex. Once again, using soccer as an example, if one team plays better than the other, you do not see their win as a surprise. However, if you did watch the game, you might question the end result. 

Another common mistake is that people only consider linear relationships. For example, if a farmer uses 2 bags of fertilizer on a maize field and the final yield is 100 pounds, he might think that adding 4 bags may produce 200 pounds of maize. However, this is not how things work. In fact, extra fertilizer may produce the same yield because there is a maximum amount or it could even result in less yield due to too many nutrients that can impact the soil negatively. What also should not be assumed is that systems are isolated. Most systems are connected in some form or the other. The system of a tree produces oxygen and human bodies produce carbon dioxide which is needed by the trees. When you fail to realize how systems are connected you may end up looking at things from the wrong perspective. 

Sometimes systems can go awry when subsystems each have their own goals. This is known as policy resistance. If any one subsystem decides to get the upper hand and therefore shift the entire system towards it, it takes twice as much effort for the other subsystems to get everything back on track. Another problem is when a system uses a resource that is unsustainable. This will result in the collapse of the entire system. 

Luckily, there are ways to improve the efficiency of a system to avoid these problems. It can be easily done by making changes to buffers, system design and delays. You have to ensure that system buffers are the correct size to ensure system stabilization. These buffers are time, inventory and storage space. Too much inventory may hurt a system by increasing the cost of storage if it does not get sold. Systems also have to be designed so that they perform optimally. If a system design does allow maximum efficiency, it should be redone considering all the factors. Lastly, delays should be kept to a minimum. The delays refer to how long it takes a system to respond to a change. If the delay is too long, the system suffers. 

Other factors to consider when fixing problems within systems is the flow of information, system rules and the self-organization of a system. A simple improvement in the flow of information can rapidly improve a system. For example, simply changing the placement of electricity meters from the basements of houses to hallways reduced energy consumption in Dutch households. Why? Because residents could see how much energy they were using and make adjustments. System rules should not be set by those who benefit from the system. This practice leads to eventual system collapse. Allowing systems to self-organize is interesting as you get to see how the system evolves. However, most people don’t like the fact that they do not have control over the system and therefore impose limits as to how much a system can grow. These limits can hurt more than they help so it is recommended that you let a system self-organize. 

Key lesson five: How you can better understand systems

Systems are interesting and as much as you can comprehend them, there are certain things you can do to navigate them better. Firstly, don’t just assess a system by its face value. You will only truly understand how it works if you see how it behaves and collect relative information about them. When you have all the information, you can start looking at how the system works and the different structural arrangements. Then you need to distribute the information accordingly throughout the system. This is where you can determine factors that can be measured and those that cannot. Being clear about these factors is essential in understanding how to know if the system is working optimally. This is also where you can identify the behaviour of the system and what influences the outcomes of the system. 

These steps will help you recognize the responsibilities of the different parts of the system and determine what actions produce what results. This will give you a clearer picture of the many systems you are faced with daily and what to do to get your desired outcome.

The key takeaway from Thinking in Systems is:

Systems are around us every day. They can be simple or incredibly complex, but they all function in the same way. They each have elements that come together for a common purpose. Understanding how these elements work together and the feedback mechanisms they have is crucial to getting a system working optimally. It is impossible to predict what behaviours may occur due to particular influences or sudden changes. However, observation of system behaviours can help you deal with them accordingly. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Thinking in Systems:

Do not make the mistake of being too narrow-minded or similarly broad-minded when considering systems. It is easy to see systems as separate and not realizing how they work together to produce an outcome. Similarly, if you think of things as linear you are more likely to miss connections in a system. Do your research properly!

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