The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Exploring Complex Problems Using Systems Thinking

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Cornell Policy Review published a special issue exploring the application of systems thinking to public policy problems. Graduate students were given an introduction to systems thinking and then applied the concepts to address issues their field.

Students applied systems thinking to a wide array of problems, and they reported finding DSRP [distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives] transformative for their work. We discuss implications for future research on the utility of relatively brief exposure to systems thinking rules for those who work on complex problems in and outside academia.

The students explored a wide variety of problems including:

Short articles and presentations are available online by each of the students showing their application of systems thinking to a problem in their public policy field.

This special issue of the Cornell Policy Review provides clear examples of how applying systems thinking to complex problems creates a framework to help understand the important issues involved. Often big problems are so complex we end up hoping that addressing individual components of the problem will end up improving the results we actually care about at a systems level. Unfortunately this process and hope are not the best strategy – the system results are not the sum of the individual parts but come from the interaction of those parts.


Maris Hansen in Addressing the Problem of Voter Turnout: An Application of Systems Thinking

Utilizing a Systems Thinking process, I have arrived at a more comprehensive view of the problem, and have better understood it. I have made the distinction between political participation and non-political participation, and I have established that voting is just one form (part) of such participation.

Systems Thinking highlighted key factors that these solutions needed to take into account, and formed a set of solution specifications.

Harrison Speck in Thinking Systemically about Worker Retention in Texas’ Child Protective Services:

Systems thinking dramatically changed my impression of how best to approach child services caseworker turnover. Understanding the interrelated nature of each problem is crucial to finding solutions. Whereas the piecemeal quality of previous reforms has meant they provide only temporary relief, a coordinated and holistic strategy is a viable method might more permanently alleviate the issues concerning child protective services agencies.

Related: Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingDeming 101: Understanding SystemsFeedback Loops in Systems ThinkingThe Future is Engineering


Categorised as: education, systems thinking


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