Systems Thinking

In May 2017, Kenyan runner and Olympic medalist Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance in 2:00:25 on the Formula One track in Monza, Italy. And yes, I stayed up and watched a bunch of guys run 15+ laps around a racetrack for—unfortunately—a little over two hours. I’ll come back to this.

I enjoy reading about design—aesthetic design, design thinking, functional design. It seems to me that design is very closely related to operations, with only slight modifications to the questions being asked, mainly exchanging processes for objects.

Steve Vassallo is a general partner at Foundation Capital, which boasts investments in an impressive list of companies including kik and Netflix. He wrote an interesting piece in his book The Way to Design about the need to shift from narrow element-oriented “design thinking” to wide process-oriented “systems thinking.”

Systems thinking.

We know that term because it is at the heart of a book our leadership team is currently reading: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. I think Steve Vassallo read Senge’s book too.

Vassallo says, “In the inextricably connected world we live in, it’s no longer possible or wise to solve for the part without due consideration of the sum of the parts.” Later he says, “you either design the system or you get designed by the system.”

In 1948, Garman Kimmell was designing the system. His product ideas and the subsequent execution of those ideas was very “systems” thinking. He was considering the overall impact of his design on the whole system of oil and gas production. He also sought to understand how Kimray’s “behavior” as a company impacted the system of Oklahoma City and the lives it directly or indirectly touched.

Today, the world we live in is much more complex than it was in 1948. Kimray is also much more complex. In his book, Vassallo talks about his friend and teacher, artist Adam Wolpert, who said, “The more complex an organism is, the more capable it becomes. And the more capable it is, the more it can address challenges and seize opportunities. The downside of that is, the more complex it becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes.”

Back to those guys running around the track in Italy. If the team had taken a design thinking approach, the race might have been run in much cooler weather. As pointed out in a Runner’s World article about the race, early May in Monza typically produces overnight lows of about 54° F, which is above the range of 45° to 50° F that scientists think is optimal for running. (My personal best marathon was 37° F at the start and 41° F at the finish, and I thought it was perfect.)

Temperatures on race day started at 52° F and drifted up to 54° F as the race progressed. Did this impact the runner’s performance? Much of the research on thermoregulation and optimal temperature ranges has been performed on subjects who don’t look a lot like Eliud Kipchoge.

“Perhaps the long-limbed, rail-thin Kipchoge stays cooler than your typical U.S. college student volunteering for physiology studies,” the Runner’s World article suggests. “Warmer temperatures also enhance the rate of chemical reactions in the body, possibly speeding up the processing of oxygen and fuel in the muscles, so cooler weather involves trade-offs. And, perhaps most important of all, many elite East African runners hate the cold and feel deeply uncomfortable in it—not the mental state you want at the start of a race.”

You must look at the whole system, and whole systems are complex.

Complex = Vulnerable.

This is the crux. The ability to seize opportunities carries the risk of being vulnerable from internal failures. We have enormous potential before us. We also have enormous risk. We can make mistakes, but we can’t continually “think” wrong. We need to be about designing the system. We need to understand not just what happened and when, but how and why these things happened.

Systems thinking can be difficult because we are so practiced at focusing on discrete problems. Worse, we often find our value in things we create in our own space and in advancing our own departmental or personal goals. Systems thinking requires us to invest in the whole regardless of what part is ours.

I am reminded that each of us is part of a larger system, like the various parts of a human body. None of us is more important or more necessary, and often those who seem to be weaker are in fact indispensable. The “system” or “body” is only able to be healthy if all the parts are healthy.

All of that to say, you have a challenge as leaders to “rise above the distraction of the details and widen your field of vision,” as Vassallo writes. “Try to see the whole world at once and make sense of it.”

I know you are up to it, because that is The Kimray Way.