What is Systems Thinking?

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Adopting this approach to healthcare issues is recommended as it may improve the ability to understand current work processes, predict system behaviour and design modifications to improve related functioning.

Systems Thinking involves exploring the characteristics of components within a system (e.g. work tasks, technology, physical environment, culture) and how they interconnect to improve understanding of how outcomes emerge from these interactions. 

This approach is necessary when analysing incidents where harm has, or could have, occurred and when designing improvement interventions.  But it is often misunderstood and misapplied.  There is a need, therefore, for an accessible exposition of Systems Thinking. 

“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. The Systems Thinking approach contrasts with traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements” (Rouse, 2005)

Why Systems Thinking?

The problem is that despite the complexity of healthcare systems, we often appear to treat issues in simple, linear terms. 

In simple systems (e.g. setting your alarm clock to wake you up) and many complicated systems (e.g. a car assembly production line) which are fairly easy to describe and model, 'cause and effect' are often linked in a predictable or linear manner. 

This contrasts sharply with the complexity, dynamism and uncertainty associated with much of health and social care practice. Systems Thinking is better suited to tackling these types of highly interactive issues.

Tools such as Five Whys, Fishbone Diagrams and the application of Root Cause Analysis have been criticised as being limited (and even pernicious) when used to analyse complex systems. 

Download the articles below for further information.

British Medical Journal articles