SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (2023)

In several discussions and posts I wrote, I talked about systems thinking, assuming everyone has the same understanding.

For example last year with the PLM Global Green Alliance (PGGA) we had a discussion with Frank Popielas Managing Partner and Co-founder of SMS_ThinkTank™ related to sustainability. We used the term “Systems Thinking” several times assuming everyone knows the concept.

I should have known better. When using terms in your profession, you always have to verify if the others have the same meaning. Crucial when you start a PLM implementation project.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (1)For example, several years ago, I was asked to audit a PLM implementation that got stalled because the PDM and ERP-system capabilities created a conflict. In my first interview with the PLM team, they mentioned they were quite advanced in Systems Engineering. Everyone in the core team confirmed this. However, when diving into the details of the “Systems Engineering” activities, it appeared that they were talking about (product) Configuration Management.

When working with different people, always make sure you have a common dictionary.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (2)What is a part? What is a material? What is a Workflow, and is it different from a Business Process? And also, for Configuration Management, you often see two definitions.

One focuses on the consistency of the product’s definition, the other more on the allowed configurations of a product. So now let’s dive into Systems Thinking which is not the same as Systems Engineering.

Systems thinking – a definition

When I checked on Wiki, I found this complex definition:

Systems thinking
is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its part. It has been used as a way of exploring and developing effective action in complex contexts. Systems thinking draws on and contributes to systems theory and the system sciences.

A careful reader would extract from this definition that the focus for systems thinking is looking at the bigger picture, the whole, a holistic approach. Of course, when using a holistic approach, you take more relationships or possibilities into account, which broadens your thinking (or value of your solution). The opposite of Systems Thinking is to focus on a single issue or part and describe it best. Let me explain this by an example:

The BIC ballpoint

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (3)You might remember the first BIC ballpoints with the sharp cap when you are as old as me.

(Video) Systems Thinking!

This image is from the time I was born. The BIC ballpoint, with the pointed cap, was one of the most popular ballpoints during my teenage years.

In primary school not allowed, as we first had to learn to write with an ink pen or fountain pen. The BIC pen at that time was designed as a product with a single purpose: enabling people to write affordable, comfortable, and fast.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (4)With a more holistic view of the BIC pen, you might say: “What happens when children play with it?” And apparently, there were accidents with children stabbing themselves in the eye with the sharp cap.

And this was indeed the case when considering the BIC ballpoint as a system; other stakeholders and scenarios were considered.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (5)Now the cap is flattened (safe for children). The cap’s open end is apparently there to support performing a tracheotomy when no medical equipment is available (just a sharp knife and the BIC ballpoint are needed).

Don’t try this at home for fun: Performing the Tracheotomy

I hope the example illustrates that you can look at a product differently.

First as a product with a single purpose (single stakeholder) or as a system interacting with other stakeholders (writing, safe for children, first aid support).

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (6)System Thinking, therefore, is an attitude which not natural for humans. In his famous book Thinking Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that our evolutionary brain always wants to save energy.

(Video) The Must Have Skill of the 21st Century | Manal Fakhoury | TEDxAlManaraSquare

Therefore our brain is pushing us to make fast intuitive decisions, not always the ones that you would make after serious thinking.

Systems Thinking costs energy for the brain.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (7)Often we hear that companies want to reduce their costs and time spent on engineering – more efficiency.

Systems Thinking and Systems Engineering are aiming for the opposite – spend more time thinking and analyzing in the virtual world, before committing to the physical world. Fixing issues once you are in the physical world is much more costly than in the virtual world.

Click on the image to see the details.

This brings us to the relationship with Systems Engineering

Systems thinking and Systems Engineering

You could say Systems Engineering is the best example of Systems Thinking. There are various viewpoints on Systems Engineering, best characterized in these two directions (Wiki here):

  • Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management that focuses on how to design, integrate, and manage complex systems over their life cycles. At its core, systems engineering utilizes systems thinking principles to organize this body of knowledge. The individual outcome of such efforts, an engineered system, can be defined as a combination of components that work in synergy to collectively perform a useful function. Here the focus is on managing in a proven manner complexity
  • Systems engineering focuses on analyzing and eliciting customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem, the system lifecycle. This includes fully understanding all of the stakeholders involved. Here the focus is on delivering the best product for the relevant stakeholders involved, not necessarily managing the complexity of the product.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (8)To manage complexity, we have always used models. The weather forecast is based on models, the profitability of a business is based on models, and the behavior of a product can be predicted and analyzed using models. This is Model-Based Systems Engineering MBSE), and I wrote a lot about the Model-Based approach last year. Read The road to model-based and connected PLM

When it comes to extending the support for different stakeholders, we have seen the example of the BIC ballpoint.

(Video) Systems Thinking in a Digital World - Peter Senge

However, when we start to talk about sustainability, we will see that by enlarging the number of stakeholders and their importance, we observe another way of Systems Thinking.

Systems thinking and sustainability

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (9)The title of this post is related to the challenges we have with sustainability, our society and even our planet. Currently, reducing carbon emissions gets the highest priority as we see the impact on our planet. Perhaps the awareness is not the same for everyone; the richer you are, the less you might feel impacted by climate change. Still, indisputably it is happening as the IPCC is reporting.

Now let’s look at the relation between systems thinking and sustainability.

Let’s imagine I work for a tier 2 or tier 3 supplier of an OEM. This means the OEM wants a component for their solution with the highest quality and the lowest price.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (10)In the traditional approach, the supplier will try to find the cheapest materials that match the required quality. They will look for the most inexpensive manufacturing process to build their component. Everything extra will reduce their chances of remaining the OEM contractor and profitable. The only stakeholder in this process is the OEM and potentially some existing regulations. For example, ROHS controls the usage of hazardous materials.

Next, imagine a supplier that wants to be more sustainable. They will add sustainability requirements to their component design. They start to treat their product as a system. What would be the difference between choosing material A over material B or choosing production process ABC over production Process XYZ?

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (11)If it is up to the OEM, it is only costs, quality and compliance. Suppose the supplier will select an alternative material that has less impact on the environment. For example, recycling or needing less energy (carbon emissions) is easier to produce. In that case, this option might be more expensive. It is up to the OEM to decide if they accept this higher cost price to be more sustainable with their products.

To understand the sustainability of a product, we need to dive into a full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA is at the heart of PLM.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (12)When a product or component is designed, the LCA will give you the information related to the impact of your product, assuming you have the accurate data to make the assessment. This is currently one of the major areas to focus on when it comes to sustainability – how can we measure the environmental impact of each part through its whole lifecycle.

(Video) Webinar: Systems Thinking, the skill to build sustainable, resilient systems

With sustainability, the needs are no longer defined by the OEM. Other stakeholders, like authorities and consumers, will also have an impact. Realistically, we will see that mainly regulations will be the biggest driver towards sustainability as consumers still want the lowest price.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (13)Currently, we see this behavior with the rising energy prices. Unfortunately, people complain about the price instead of realizing the price has always been too low. Changing behavior (energy consumption) might be the best path for the future, but that is more difficult than complaining.

Systems Thinking and the Circular Economy

Finally, I want to mention one topic closely related to Systems Thinking and Sustainability: the Circular Economy. The Circular Economy is well explained by the Ellen McArthur Foundation. Follow the link and get educated as the Circular Economy is about a system. A system that tries to minimize the leakage of resources and the need for new raw materials. Each loop is a process to consider.

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (14)

With the PLM Global Green Alliance, we discussed the circular economy together with Darren West from SAP in our session: PLM and Sustainability: talking with SAP. I hope and trust we will learn more about companies to follow the principle of a circular economy.

Want to learn more?

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (15)There is so much more to say about Systems Thinking in general, and I will come back to this topic in a future post. Meanwhile, I recommend this post for all of you who want to learn more about systems thinking and sustainability: Systems Thinking can help build a sustainable world: A Beginning Conversation from the MAHB (Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere). There is so much to learn and discuss if you are actively looking for it.


Systems Thinking is needed to solve the issues in a complex society. It is an attitude, not a new approach. Systems Thinking helps to manage a complex system, it helps to address sustainability, and it helps fight against populism. Simple answers do not exist – looking to the bigger picture, using systems thinking will make you better informed wherever you are on this limited planet

SYSTEMS THINKING – a must-have skill in the 21st century (16)War is a place where young people who don’t know each other, and don’t hate each other, kill each other, by the decision of old people who know each other, and hate each other, but don’t kill each other…”

(Video) Benefits of Systems Thinking


Why is systems thinking an important skill? ›

Systems thinking offers a way to better predict future outcomes—based not on past events, but on a more intimate understanding of the surrounding structure and its elements. ""Structure, to a large extent, determines behavior,"" explains organisational consultant Daniel Kim .

What are systems thinking skills? ›

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system's constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems.

Why is systems thinking an important skill for engineers? ›

Systems Thinking is an essential skill for Systems Engineers which is shared with many disciplines and provides a key intellectual underpinning for Systems Engineering. Systems thinking provides a rigorous way of integrating: people, purpose, process and performance and ■ relating systems to their environment.

What is systems thinking and why is it relevant for designers in the 21st century? ›

Systems thinking is an approach that designers use to analyze problems in an appropriate context. By looking beyond apparent problems to consider a system as a whole, designers can expose root causes and avoid merely treating symptoms. They can then tackle deeper problems and be more likely to find effective solutions.

What is the value of systems thinking? ›

The purpose of systems thinking is to help us to be clear about our assumptions. To surface, make them explicit, test them and improve them, so that over time, we become less and less and less wrong.

Why are systems important in our life? ›

Systems are the structure around which the other parts of our work are framed and without them, there would be chaos. But you need to have the right systems. Sloppy, flabby or silly systems can damage an otherwise beautiful organization.

What is an example of systems thinking? ›

Someone using a systems thinking approach would look at individual decisions and their systematic consequences. A systems thinking approach can be applied to business situations such as: The complexities of managing airline fleet maintenance and setting schedules, and staffing for on-time arrivals.

How can I improve my systems thinking skills? ›

Becoming a seasoned systems thinker starts with a strong commitment to developing your own awarenesses and skills.
  1. Ask Different Questions. ...
  2. Learn to Experience Time Differently. ...
  3. Notice the Systems Around You. ...
  4. Draw a Loop-a-Day (or one a week). ...
  5. Find a Coach or Mentor. ...
  6. Start a Book Group. ...
  7. Form Learning Communities.

What is an example of system One thinking? ›

Key Terms. System 1 Thinking: Our brains' fast, automatic, unconscious, and emotional response to situations and stimuli. This can be in the form of absentmindedly reading text on a billboard, knowing how to tie your shoelaces without a second thought, or instinctively hopping over a puddle on the sidewalk.

Why is systems thinking an important skill for high school students? ›

System thinking is an important skill for students as they grapple with the complex challenges that lie at the intersection of Earth systems and human interactions. Topics such as climate change, energy, population dynamics and resource use benefit from a systems-based approach.

What is systems thinking and how can it help you in your chosen career? ›

Systems thinking is an approach to understanding and describing systems by analysing their elements and interactions. You can think of the workplace as a series of relationships and influences between people and non-human elements. Together, these elements and their interactions produce a series of effects.

Why is it important to use a systems thinking approach to a problem? ›

The problems that arise in interconnected organizations can be difficult to solve. Systems thinking is problem-solving approach that examines the relationships between functions in an organization. Systems thinking is powerful because it enables you to predict the consequences of a potential change.

Why is it important for systems and design thinking to work together? ›

Importance of using design and systems thinking together

Finding the balance between the two offers more effective solutions to challenges that can create an impact on a larger scale. Essentially, combining these two systems can help create solutions through innovations rather than negotiations.

What is systems thinking why is systems thinking important to learning about sustainability? ›

What is systems thinking in sustainability? Sustainable systems thinking is a mindset that helps us to untangle and work within the complexity of life on Earth. It helps us to better understand the impact of our work on the world around us and be responsible for what we create and how we innovate.

How Today's Leaders Think why systems thinking is important? ›

It is an ability to understand the relationships, effects and delays among information, problems, people, events, departments and systems. Leaders should practice systems thinking and encourage their followers to practice it as well because only through systems thinking collective learning can occur.

How does system thinking affect your life? ›

Ultimately, the goal of thinking in systems is to help you avoid wasted time, money, and other resources. A systems approach to management thinks of the organization as a set of interrelated and dynamic parts. Each of these parts is a department and a sub-system within your organization.

What do you learn from systems thinking? ›

It allows us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions. Systems thinking often involves moving from observing events or data, to identifying patterns of behavior overtime, to surfacing the underlying structures that drive those events and patterns.

How do you apply system thinking? ›


'Systems thinking' as a process looks to achieve three objectives: (1) understand a system's dynamics—analysis; (2) understand a system's hierarchy—synthesis; and (3) develop solutions—decision making.

What is the main purpose of a system? ›

Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system.

What is the purpose of the systems? ›

The purpose of a system is a property of the whole and not in any of the components. Notice here that there is a close link between emergence and purpose. At this point it is useful to talk about two types of system; designed systems and evolved systems. Designed systems have a defined start and finish to its life.

What are characteristics of systems thinking? ›

Systems thinking has typically some of the following characteristics: the issue is important; the problem faced is not a one-off event; the problem is familiar and has a well-known history and people have unsuccessfully tried to solve the problem before.

What are the key concepts of systems thinking? ›

In this short article, Leyla Acaroglu explains six of the most important key themes in systems thinking: interconnectedness, synthesis, emergence, feedback loops, causality, and systems mapping.

What are the three important concepts of systems thinking? ›

The key concepts are: All systems are composed of inter-connected parts. The connections cause behavior of one part to affect another. All parts are connected.

What is the first step in systems thinking? ›


Begin by specifying the problem you want to address. Then construct hypotheses to explain the problem and test them using models. Only when you have a sufficient understanding of the situation should you begin to implement change.

Why is system 1 thinking important? ›

It is System 1 thinking that is responsible for many of the everyday decisions, judgements and the purchases we make and explains many of the heuristics (shortcuts or rules of thumb) that are highlighted by Behavioural Economics. We use System 2 to make rational decisions.

What are the four simple rules of systems thinking? ›

The 4 patterns—distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives—go by the acronym DSRP.

Why is system thinking important in the workplace? ›

Systems thinking can help you find new ways to improve efficiency and resource economy. Studying an organization's system and the interactions between its elements can help you develop new ideas and innovations. It can also allow you to identify problems quickly and test new solutions to these problems.

Why is systems thinking important in healthcare? ›

Systems thinking helps provide better patient-centered care, fosters problem-solving and encourages questioning.

Why systems thinking is important in leadership? ›

Systems thinking is a way of viewing an organization holistically, and being able to examine and connect the linking parts. By examining your organization systemically, you will be able to create efficient processes and avoid practices with unintended, and potentially negative, outcomes.


1. Systems-thinking: A Little Film About a Big Idea
(Cabrera Research Lab)
2. Future of Governance Masterclass: Systems thinking for the 21st century
(Accountability Initiative)
3. Skills Every Child Will Need to Succeed in 21st century | Dr. Laura A. Jana | TEDxChandigarh
(TEDx Talks)
4. System Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World
(MIT OpenCourseWare)
5. Systems Engineering Management Guest Panel: Systems Thinking for an Increasingly Complex World
6. Systems thinking as it applies to systems engineering
(Joseph Kasser)
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