Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking

2015-07-15 10.31.38Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking – intersection or subset?

I have recently been in discussion with an INCOSE colleague about the difference or relationship between Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking – and whether they are different or related. Let me be very clear from the start on my view – I think of Systems Engineering as the systematic (through an appropriate process) application of Systems Thinking, to a problem in the Engineering domain. [This comes from the training I got from Stuart Burge over a decade ago]. The last point is key – it depends on the purpose or situation in which the Systems Thinking is done.
He feels that there is a difference, and I have been struggling to explain. Today, I happened to come across an example in a novel I am reading (The Quarry, by Iain Banks – last book before he sadly died of cancer). In this the narrator discusses (page 81/82 in the Abacus paperback edition) random jams:
a random jam is one where traffic backs up for what looks like no particular reason…..One moment the traffic is flowing normally, then the next it’s as though the liquid of the traffic suddenly sets, with the wave-front of halting vehicles propagating rapidly upstream. Later, a few seconds or many minutes, as the traffic at the front of the queue breaks up like the ice on some Alaskan river in spring, the flow resumes, and everything goes back to normal.
I think they/re triggered when something trivial takes place, like somebody changing lanes suddenly, and the person behind brakes, then the person behind them brakes a little harder, and so on, until people further back are having to slow to a crawl and then a stop, while people changing lanes to avoid it just spread the blockage further.
….it has occurred to me that the person who initiates a random jam probably never knows what chaos they’ve caused behind them.”

As I read this I thought this is precisely the sort of insight or understanding that comes from Systems Thinking. So to try and illustrate the point about Systems Thinking and Systems Engineering consider the different situations and people who might use this output from applying Systems Thinking. There are a range
a) For the pleasure of understanding what is happening – which is the perspective of Kit the narrator who looks forward to seeing a random jam on his walks – “the very best thing to see is a random jam. It’s fascinating, and oddly beautiful… the random jam is like some strange, harmless, ephemeral work of art”
b) A driving instructor, who uses the explanation to try and explain consequences of behaviour, and teach appropriate techniques to avoid it. Uses Systems Thinking, but not Systems Engineering
c) Logistics manager trying to understand variation in traffic patterns in order to plan delivery schedules – systems thinking but not in engineering, so not Systems Engineering
d) Let’s say a highways engineering – designing traffic calming systems in order to prevent random jams and improve the flow of traffic. It is my understanding that this understanding is one of the issues considered in traffic calming systems. So in this case the highway engineer uses Systems Thinking to engineer. So if the systems thinking is applied Systematically (so as to look for these issues rather than just a random known fact they happen to know) – then it is Systems Engineering (and not just the engineering of a system, which, by my definition, it would be without the Systems Thinking.
So – like many issues, it is context that matters. When Systems Thinking used in Engineering, it is Systems Engineering, when (as in say Donella Meadows and the limits to growth) it is applied outside engineering to economics or anything else then it is just Systems Thinking.

About richard.beasley

I am an active INCOSE member - and currnetly chapter president of the INCOSE UK chapter. My specific interests in Systems Engineering are : implentning SE into an organisation, applicaton of Systems thinking, Requirements elication and management, and competency I am employed by Rolls-Royce, who I joined as a graduate trainee in 1986. For RR I am Global Chief of Systems Engineering, and Associate Fellow in Systems Engineering

One thought on “Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking

  1. The mechanism for the random jam has been explained before. It occurs with buses regularly leave a terminal,but due to non-uniform queuing a particular bus is slightly delayed by an excessively long queue. This happens progressively worse on successive bus stops. This also means that the next queue to form will be shorted and so the bus which follows will spend less time in picking up its passengers. Result–the two buses become closer to each other and eventually the second bus will overtake the first. It also applies to food supplies (and famines) and many other situation, natural and man-made.

    For the bus situation, the answer is for the driver to take a limited number of new passengers at each stop, but this leads to fights among the passengers who are left behind. By spreading greater understanding about the mechanism described above, does the thinking world have a chance to ease the present day conflicts which can spread into wars. By being able to examine the “Big Picture” can the local apparent unjust result be better tolerated. This is why systems engineering is important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *