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Jim Benson


The Four Stages of Systems Thinking

Everything is a system

Published: Wednesday, June 2, 2021 - 12:02

No matter who you are or what you do, you create systems and live in the systems of others every day. But for some reason, we’re never actually taught lean systems thinking. We think it is natural, that we just sort of “get it.”

On a personal level, we are most often governed by cognitive biases... more than 250 documented “shortcuts” our brains take to interpret and respond to the world around us. They, themselves, are systems, and they respond to stimuli in our world (which are generated by, you guessed it, more systems).

It’s a soup, but it’s a soup of patterns.

Systems are our responsibility

The key to lean systems thinking is to be able to see these patterns and their indicators, interactions, and implications. From there, we must be able to share what we see with others so we can recognize the same patterns, react in similar ways, and respond appropriately. Once we have a shared understanding of the system and our responses, we can build better systems by creating intentional systems that support clarity, creativity, and completion.

Creating a system is not the end. Once it is built, we must power the system by making sure we’ve created a community that will be a part of, attend to, learn from, and improve our system. 

Let’s flesh this out a little.

The four stages of lean systems thinking

stage one see the problem

Stage one: See the system

With lean systems thinking, our first step is to make our system visible. Initially being able to visualize your system allows a rapid understanding of how your system operates. Seeing the system is important. We need to see the interactions, the areas where there are problems, the way that information or work or intention flows. We need to see where people’s lives are improved, and where they are harmed by your system. Lean systems thinking allows us to see where our current system divides the team, creating frustration and inefficiency.

stage two share the system

Stage two: Share the system

The second stage of lean systems thinking comes down to sharing the ownership of the system. Once a previously “invisible” system is made visible, it becomes tameable, more useful, and improvable, but only if you share it. The system foists expectations on us, and we (as a group) need to begin to have some expectations of the system. Your team sees work as it is actually happening on the same visualization. The story becomes shared, responses to planned or unplanned events become less chaotic. With lean systems thinking, the team can find the places where current frustrations are self-inflicted wounds and fix them. Meetings will quickly cease to be frustrating arguments or dull information sessions, and will become working sessions. At this stage, we truly begin to work together.

stage three build the system

Stage three: Build the system

It might seem strange to have “build” be the third stage of a four-stage system, but almost every system you will seek to improve will already exist. Build here can be thought of as any renovation project. The system requires maintenance, yes, but also reconfiguration or additions. Build, here, is intentionally grandiose. We want to respect the fact that there will be considerable ongoing work in the husbandry of our system, and that the denial of those duties is what causes most systemic problems. We need to pay attention.

Stage four: Power the system

stage 4 power the system

After we have begun a regular practice of building our system, we seek to improve the culture that both drives and is driven by our system. By adopting lean systems thinking, we seek out ways to have better meetings; we continuously improve our professional capabilities; we look for ways to improve work-life balance, increase the fidelity of our conversations with customers, and in general, tweak our system so that it not only runs better, but also is enjoyable to work in. 

Does this all seem like theory?

Maybe it is. What I can tell you is this. After 30 years of working in many industries, I can tell you that almost every problem a team finds itself in is solvable and usually a self-inflicted wound. Missed deadlines, quality problems, high turnover, budget overruns, angry customers, you name it... they are all nearly always caused by team members not understanding how they work and not being able to communicate effectively with stakeholders.

The existing tools to engage these four stages are myriad, and you can create your own. There is no one way to engage lean systems thinking. No one holds the patent on it. 

Valuing the need for these stages can’t be overstated. If you aren’t paying attention to them, you aren’t doing your job. 

These four stages are the foundation for our Lean Agile Visual Management Certification. Dive deep into systems thinking.

First published Dec. 3, 2020, on Modus Institute.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.