Monday, October 22, 2012

Systems Thinking = Shared Supportive Thinking

Schools are people organizations. From the children entering the school each day, their parents that pack them off to be entrusted to the school environment, to the maintenance grounds/custodial workers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff to the faculty and administrators. Schools revolve around children, but are powered by the imagination and creative juices of adults that support the "system" of the school district. So, how does this idea of systems thinking (which is a domain of the learning organization) play out in the world of the learning community (the domain of a shared and supportive environment)? Thus, today's post.

Systems thinking has been described as a the continuous improvement level of the learning model. It is that feedback loop or quality circle, that is required for everyone to be on track with each other and for the good of the organization. It is the arena that takes an issue effecting the output of the organization, and frames it within a problem-solving mode for solutions that will enhance and grow the positive outcome of the issue.
Scenario A: A few years ago, I had the honor of visiting the Steinway Piano Factory in Steinway, Queens, NY. In this historic building of 5 floors, is an assembly line of great, historic significance, since the greatest pianos in musical history were made here. Each floor of the plant had different divisions or departments where a different aspect of the piano was addressed, and made. From the creation of the soundboard, to the stringing of the piano, to the installation of the hammers to the wood carpentry and veneer. This was an involved and focused operation whose sole purpose is to make the best sounding piano possible, each and every time.
While strolling around the plant on a guided tour, I noticed that in each area there was a wall chart with the company motto, and a chart for workers to write concerns for continuous improvement meetings. I inquired about what this meant, and one of shop stewards said each division of the plant/assembly line meets in continuous improvement meetings once a month for the purpose of discussing concerns and issues that are affecting the output quality. This is an example of systems thinking.

Scenario B: A new middle school principal took over a school that had poor ELA writing scores on statewide tests. He made it his goal to get the building focused on how to address this weakness and to get everyone on board with a major issue of concern for the sake of promoting a positive student achievement. At the first faculty meeting of the school year he outlined how important this was, and his expectation that everyone in the school, not just the ELA teachers, would be involved in this effort. He informed the parents of his mission for the school, and assured parents that this was a mandatory mission to move their children forward in their educational achievement. Throughout the school year, building-wide assessments were used to pre-test the situation, and periodically check on efforts across the board. Next, all teachers, regardless of subject area were responsible for teaching writing, and they had to get on board with all teaching from the same play book. Long story short, the scores improved, synergy and focused teaching were established, and systems thinking prevailing across the board.

What prevents systems thinking or shared supportive thinking are the few individuals that resent this kind of team work. In the words of Jim Collins from Good to Great, move them off the bus. These organizational learning models need strong leaders, willing to work at a great and noble task. Putting up with the self-centered teacher that will not cooperate with this purpose will stress and negate the effort. Leaders need to be bold and move them away from positive outcomes. 

In the words of Lao Tzu: "When Simplicity is broken up, It is made into instruments. Evolved individuals who employ them, Are made into leaders. In this way, the Great System is United."

The Tao Te Ching (Verse 28)

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization "healthy" or "unhealthy".
Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices[2] within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.