A World of Systems Thinkers?

Bjarne Berg Wig
8 min readMar 16, 2021


From the SoL leadership program 25 years annivarsary since publishing The Fifth Discipline (Peter Senge) (Photo BBW)

Most people in my country Norway and in the rest of the world are not system thinkers. We are busy to coping with big and small problems in our lives. However — when those problems does not go away, the practice of most people is not problem solving, but problem handling. This is why the vision of “a world of systems thinkers” is important: Systems thinking have the potential to improve billions of people’s lives. Through systems thinking we can also address the “wild” problems in our world.

Both, big and small problems at work and in life require understanding the system that our problems are part of. The system is what creates them. When we deal with same problems over and over again, it’s like “yo-yo dieting”. “Yo-yo slimmer’s” struggle to solve the problem. They lose weight one month and gain it again the next. Politicians too struggle: they try to fix one thing; another thing gets broken. Anyone can think other examples besides diets and politics, where the “yo-yo effect” is a common result of methods that deal with symptoms, not system causes.

Complex — not complicated. System thinking however, is a way of thinking with potential to address the world’s “acute” and chronic problems. So, why is it so hard to spread? What obstacles stop system thinking leaders from spreading systems thinking?
A major obstacle is a mental model most people have which sees systems thinking as complicated. We must not confuse complex with complicated!

Systems thinking consists of two words: systems and thinking. Systems thinking is the relation between understanding systems and how we think of systems. This is mind awareness or in more specific terms, metacognition. It is key to human development. It is concerned with thinking about how we think, with knowing how our brain interprets what we see, feel, and hear. Let’s take a closer look at this relationship between systems and thinking. What are systems? And how do we think of systems?

What are systems?

Systems theories view the world as a system of interconnected parts. A system is interconnected parts or factors that work and interact together to create an effect. Observing a system is researching and understanding how various variables interact, impact, and affect each other. Examples of natural systems include the weather, the solar system, birds, and trees. Other systems can be found in sports. Take cross-country skiing as an example. The interaction between training methods, equipment development, coaching, weather conditions and, skiiers’ mental state , . About social systems, think of the family. It is made up of many individuals across many generations, interacting with each other to go through daily life, to live healthily, and to grow.

One challenge that makes it a little complicated is that the most important factors that affect the systems are almost always hidden. It’s like the iceberg where 90 % is hidden under the surface. Now, when we see lava flowing down from Etna in Sicilia, it explains a little about the geological system that is hidden beneath the surface.

An important aspect of understanding systems is to see the underlying causes of variation. This was introduced to Japanese leaders in the 1950s by Dr. Deming. One must see the entire value chain as a system and systematically remove the underlying causes of variation. Dr. Deming introduced systems thinking leadership as how we think of systems. mous book, “The Fifth Discipline” (1994) in which he opened and deepened Dr. Deming’s thinking. Various new discoveries in psychology and brain knowledge were also made. Let's look at one of the oldest mental models which after hundreds of years has had little foothold in western thinking and thereafter two important modern-age knowledge breakthroughs.

Panta Rei: everything flows
You may have heard about the term Panta Rei; "everything flows", which is attributed to the scientist and philosopher Heraclitus (400 BC). We cannot descend twice in the same river, because next time you and the river would have changed. Everything is moving and changing. Thinking dialectically is in contrast to a mechanical and superficial thinking.
Dialectically means: looking at the real world as systems that are in motion.
he mechanical thinking is: “This is how it is.”
The dialectical thinking is: “This is how it looks like at the moment”.

Brain System 1 and System 2:
Nobel Prize winners Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have provided us with decades of studies on psychology, motivation, decision-making, and the hidden biases we carry.
Interestingly, Deming pointed out that a key element of the (SoPK) is psychology. He has also purposely linked together the four elements of SoPK: Psychology, which focuses on understanding variation, the theory of knowledge, and how to lead a system. Each one of the elements is of great individual importance, but it also has special synergy with the other elements.

In the case of psychology, scientific research has brought new insights into how our minds work, and don’t work.Perhaps one of the most helpful aspects of brain psychology research is the concept of the “System 1”; brain and the “System 2” brain as described by Kahneman.

System 1 (S1) is the gatekeeper, which relentlessly analyzes stimuli (circumstances, ideas, people…) for threats and comforts. It rejects those stimuli that are unusual, new, and not experienced by the brain as “being safe.” It accepts those stimuli, which are known and believed by the S1 brain gatekeeper to be harmless.

The S2 brain (S2) is the thinking brain. To get an unusual and new concept, such as the systems thinking integrated into the brain, the concepts/stimuli need to get past the S1 gatekeeper and then be understood and accepted by the System 2 brain.

To expand this a bit: the linear, cause-and-effect model is typical of a 2-dimensional operating system within the S1 and S2 brains. This 2-dimensional, cause-and-effect model is often manifested in our beliefs and decision-making processes by the 2-dimensional model of if/then thinking. If/then thinking is often referred to as “common sense.”

Another finding is that S1 is autonomous. Dostoyevsky once wrote,” Don’t think about a polar bear!” But then the damned polar bear is there all the time! It is system 1 running!

We form mental models that get “stuck” in our head. Our brain automatically resists information that do not fit our mental models.
When we know our hidden biases and that system 1 is often wrong, we can develop awareness that makes us better thinkers. In the workplace, we can design meeting rooms, walls and boards so that the visual allows us to use both systems 1 and 2 more efficiently. (See later the “DNA code” in a learning system)

Four simple rules of systems thinking

The second new breakthrough is the discovery of the four fundamental rules of system thinking. In their book, Systems Thinking Made Simple, Derek and Laura Cabrera describe simple rules we can use to gain the best possible knowledge to develop mental models that are more useful for work and personal lives. They called them DSRP. Our brain by nature uses the four simple rules. Like a “muscle” in our body, with practice we become stronger and more effective. The DSRP simple rules are:

Distinction rule: Any idea or thing can be separated from other ideas or things. It means seeing what a thing or idea is and what it is not.
Systems rule: Every idea or thing must be seen as part of a whole system (Ref. Deming)
Relation rule: Every idea or thing can be related to other ideas or things (action-reaction, cause-effect)
Perspective rule: Any idea or thing can be seen from different perspectives

Just try to exercise this “muscle”
Pick a problem you are dealing with and think how you think about it right now. What is in your head, your present mental model?

Then ask the DSRP simple questions.
Distinction: What is it and what is it not?
System: What system is the problem part of? (Part whole)
Relation: (inter and action) What relationships do you see?
How it looks from different perspectives? How does it look from another angle? You do this while you observe the problem as directly as possible. Just go and see it yourself!

The daily practice, “DNA code” of learning systems

My colleagues at LOS Norge and I struggled with questions such as: What are the simple rules we can follow daily to increase the learning speed? What would be the simple “virus” that could be a changemaker?

Then, we discovered the power of something simple and obvious., The dialectical relationship between visual information, dialogue, and practical experiments can help speed up learning dramatically:

Make information visible and easy to see (V) Obtain the important information and make it visible in such a way that it reinforces both system 1 and system 2.
Dialogue - awareness of what we think and believe.
Dialogue consists of prediction of what we think will happen, and reflection of what we interpret after it has happened. This is interconnected to:
Practice - experiment as fast as possible to learn
Then make visible and reflect (D) and practice (P). Over and over again.

If we improve each of these three interconnected factors and the relationship between them, we will speed up learning and innovation!

Real Lean practice and the “sensei “
System thinking does not replace anything we have learned from continuous improvement, quality management, and Lean. It just reinforces them many times. Lean practitioners all over the world practice systems thinking. But can we do it better? Yes, off course!
This raises another question: How do we teach and learn? What is the role of a teacher? A dominant consulting model is “helping companies implement Lean”. The mental model is that Lean is a structure and set of methods that can be implemented. However, Lean is a system for learning and a lean sensei teaches leaders and practitioners to be better thinkers.

Listen to your sensei and exercise the learning “muscle”:
A sensei would ask:
Which vital and important hidden information you need to visualize (V)? How can you use the walls, , boards, or digital screens? How can you make the data ‘talk’ through control diagrams, figures, pictures, and symbols? What is your next action?
Make it safe to have a dialogue to discuss what we see. (D) What do you think of what you see? (mental model 1) What practical experiments should you do to gain more knowledge(P) and then reflect and improve your mental model? (mental model 2)
Systems thinking has the potential to spread if System1 gatekeeper allows it through. Then, we have to bring it to real problem solving. The role of sensei is key to speed up its spread.

A new path in the forest is a little difficult in the beginning, but eventually it will become a new habit, a normal way of thinking.



Bjarne Berg Wig

Institute for Learning Organizations. Author, lecturer and sensei.