Why Leaders Need to Be Systemic Thinkers

Why Leaders Need to Be Systemic Thinkers

Systems thinking is a powerful approach to managing organizations. He viewed complex formation as a series of components that make up a whole, with each part interacting and influencing the other.

The various departments, units, and teams – components – of a large organization continue to interact and influence one another. They behave together as one system. Therefore, executives must take a systems-as-a-whole perspective if they are to maximize organizational efficiency.

See the whole

To get a complete picture, executives need a deep understanding of the entire organization, the various parts that move, and how each component affects the others. However, there is much more to think about the system than that.

Chain reaction

Managers need to understand the adaptability of the system. As dynamic units, systems adapt to the changes imposed on them – often with unpredictable results.

Therefore, managers need to understand how the actions they take in each part of the system affect the whole.

supply and demand

Besides, systems thinking requires a real understanding of both sides of the supply-demand equation.

First, how many requests are there in the system? When and where are organizational results needed? What is the likelihood of peaks, valleys, and seasonal changes in demand? Which external factors influence demand and how?

And most importantly: How many requests that the system does not provide do you need at all? The UK public sector estimates that 80% of the so-called “failures” in the public sector.

On the supply side, executives need to understand the ability of their organization to deliver the goods and / or services offered.

Systems theory can help leaders understand capacity constraints. This means that they are better able to identify the resources needed to move efficiently within the system. If not, often their focus is on job storage capacity (storage capacity) and not on the extent of the flow (flow capacity).


Ultimately, managers must adopt the right leadership style and move away from a pure command and control mentality. You have to accept that the work of your systems is as important a factor in its design as the work of the employees. Problems such as poor productivity, low morale, or stress in the workforce are often the result of problems in the system itself.

Barriers to systems thinking

What prevents managers from gaining a systemic perspective?

Organizations are divided into departments and departments, each with their leader, goals, priorities, budget, and performance management goals. 

As a result, people can understand the focus on the pieces of the puzzle for which they are responsible. As a result, it is rare for executives to see the entire system.

Besides, managers in any part of the organization should not be encouraged to work with other components to achieve overall goals. Thus, there may not be the same vision; There is no general “map” of the system.

Performance goals, which are used frequently in organizations, can get in the way of systems thinking. They can lead to counterproductive leadership behaviors with a full mission.

Particularly in the public sector, objectives can be a tool for stakeholders to define a unit as “success” or “failure” rather than a measure of system effectiveness. Worse, failure decisions focus on the part of the system where the target was missed, rather than the entire system.

Besides, most organizations are managed and controlled from the top down. Systematic leadership, however, means empowering frontline staff to develop a deep understanding of the organization and empowering them to improve processes from within.

Look at the system

Creating a culture of systematic thinking is no quick task. It takes time to incorporate the knowledge and behaviors needed to make decisions and take actions that will benefit the entire system.

Against this background, systematic thinking should not be the savings of a select group of executives. The whole systems perspective can only be achieved by developing the ability to map processes and work processes across the workforce. 

That way, any change in the system can start with a clear understanding of the organization’s goals and objectives – and most importantly – the needs of its end users.

Are you a systems thinker? 

  • Are you looking at the whole system instead of trying to optimize your local resources? The “local” perspective can influence the operation of the entire system.
  • Do you regularly go through the processes your customers go through? Otherwise, it’s impossible to map your system and identify potential points of failure.
  • Do you regularly map the user experience and make the map available to anyone who needs it? Process mapping should generate general knowledge of how the system is configured and how its design will affect its performance. This can serve as a guide for everyone involved in improving the system.
  • How do you measure demand and capacity? Many organizations, especially government agencies, measure activity (work was done) rather than demand (work coming). This results in a misunderstanding of capacity constraints.
  • Are your performance management measures used for improvement rather than an appraisal? Your goal should be to avoid mistakes and improve the process, rather than finding the culprit when things go wrong.
  • What actions were taken as a result of each process analysis? Good systems thinking practices are often characterized by quick decisions and changing processes. Committee decisions are not conducive to systematic thinking.
  • Is system design in your company a top-down or bottom-up process? System design is most effective when it involves the people who know the system best: first-line employees and service users.

Example: NHS winter crisis

The 2014 winter crisis in accidents and emergencies highlighted many of the organizational problems and challenges described above. This is a textbook example of a “whole system” problem – and one where a lack of systematic thinking means that the root cause cannot be identified.

In the winter of 2014-15, only 86% of patients had A&E in four hours or less, which is well below the government’s 95% target and a much larger shortage than the previous winter.

However, the demand for research and development services only increased by 2% per year during this period. Such a small increase should not cause the system to fail critically – especially if the seasons are fully predictable.

Why did the crisis occur? Why does the winter crisis continue? And why does it seem to get worse every year?

The issues at hand

A&E, of course, is only part of the broad and very complex NHS system. The demands of research and development services and the ability to provide them depend on other parts of the hospital and other health care facilities: general practitioners, community health and social services, telephone lines 999 and 111, etc.

Perhaps in such a complex system, it is inevitable that there is no general view of the whole and no common vision of what everyone wants to achieve.

Each department is managed separately with objectives, pressures, budgets, and objectives. As a result, doctors rarely observe a patient’s end-to-end journey and may not be able to see potential points of failure throughout the system.

The target of four hours of waiting and practice presents the challenge. As a measure of flow capacity, it is an effective measure. However, it is seen widely – inside and outside the NHI – as a reflection of performance. It is used simply as a “line in the sand” between success and failure.

The result was that steps to improve R&D departments lost 95% of their intended focus mostly on the unit concerned. You cannot troubleshoot the problem elsewhere in the system, which adds to the problem. And they push for short-term optimization of A&E resources rather than long-term solutions to bigger problems.

At the same time, the demand for A&E services is not well understood. It has been suggested that more people with more complex health problems visit the sports and recovery departments during winter. However, the data proved otherwise. Intake is higher in summer, whereas the number of patients with complex problems usually does not vary from season to season.

The winter innovation crisis is based on a supply problem. Health flow capacity is generally not well planned.

Flow capacity declines across much of the NHS during winter as managers, clinical staff, and support staff take their Christmas holidays. This puts more pressure on the storage capacity in the form of beds, eventually clogging the entire system.

The wrong solutions

This lack of systematic thinking encourages actions and solutions that do not solve problems.

First, when planning service capacity, executives usually consider only one aspect of supply: storage capacity. Adequate bedding is of course important, but a closer look at the flow capacity will determine the impact the Christmas holidays have on system performance in winter.

Another tactic commonly used indicates a lack of understanding of the nature of the demand for health services. Take resource fencing, for example. General practitioners can only see children or the elderly only half a day of the week, although this is not related to demand – it does not affect when people are sick and need a doctor.

And if a winter crisis occurs, a state-of-the-art, the pressurized ward can switch to fire mode and transfer patients who have spent four hours on their ward to another location in the system. It just shifts the load – doesn’t let go.

NHS managers can also move beds from other parts of the hospital to A&E. Or they try to divert the demand by directing the patient to another location for stress relief. However, both approaches reduce capacity in other parts of the system.

After all, NHS leaders tend to provide too complex solutions to problems. One trust ends with over seventy different queuing priority systems to manage emergency needs. 

Lack of coordination can also result in efforts to improve systems being disrupted and staff becoming overwhelmed by conflicting workloads. For example, at one point the NHS had about 86 improvement projects running at the same time.

Understanding and action 

To address the root causes of the winter crisis, NHS leaders need a thorough understanding of:

  • how the various components of health care interact with one another
  • the actual search rate entered into the system at each entry point
  • how work goes through the NHS system
  • difference between flow and storage capacity
  • the amount of each type of capacity available simultaneously for each system component
  • how the system itself can lead to changes in demand and capacity
  • how these deviations can lead to delays and delays in treatment

Based on this detailed system view, managers should consider the following actions:

  • Develop medium and long-term strategies to ensure that requests in every part of the system can be met promptly without undue delay
  • measure process behavior in real-time
  • Use travel policies to help identify where delays occur
  • Deal with the reason for this delay
  • Enables front line workers to develop in-depth knowledge of the systems in which they work
  • Promotion of continuous improvement of systems based on sound process analysis and established methods such as Plan-do-Check-Act.

In short

Many public and private sector operations can be viewed as complex adaptive systems. Therefore, the typical command and control approach to its implementation does not understand its nature. You cannot identify the root cause of a problem or promote continuous and effective process improvement.

The NHI winter gold crisis – and the way they have coped with it – is a big case. They are a symptom of a system-wide problem but are fixed locally, which doesn’t fix the underlying cause.

A systematic approach can help overcome these deficiencies. Correctly applied systematic thinking provides an overview of the entire organization, its processes and work processes, and its supply and demand parameters. This helps explain why the service may not be what they need.

However, certain challenges usually get in the way of systematic thinking. Managers need to use the right leadership style and behavior. They need to take the time to understand their process from their customers and present employee positions. 

And they need to incorporate the necessary skills into their workforce.

Only then can they get the systems perspective they need to truly get the most out of the organization.

Share via
Copy link