Seeing the Forest for the Trees | Dennis Sherwood

Summary of: Seeing the Forest for the Trees: A Manager’s Guide to Applying Systems Thinking
By: Dennis Sherwood


In ‘Seeing the Forest for the Trees: A Manager’s Guide to Applying Systems Thinking’, author Dennis Sherwood provides an enlightening view into the world of systems thinking and its numerous applications. Throughout the book, Sherwood explores the essential aspects of systems, such as their emergent, self-organizing, and feedback-sustained nature. By discussing real-life examples and pioneer thinkers in the field, the book offers valuable insights into understanding businesses and other organizations as systems. To truly grasp the functioning of a system, one must analyze the dynamic connections among its components, mastering the feedback loops, and avoiding common pitfalls caused by overlooking systemic interactions.

Understanding Systems

Systems are not just a collection of individual components; they are a collection of components that interact
with each other. To comprehend a system, you need to understand how these components interact and how their relationships affect the system as a whole. Unfortunately, most people prefer to examine the individual components of a system rather than understanding the system as a whole. This preference is reinforced by standard scientific procedures that aim to eliminate the effects of variables unrelated to the object of experimentation. However, all things are never really equal. To truly understand a system, you need to study it as a whole. You can’t freeze it, and dissection only provides a static view. Therefore, diagram the dynamic interaction among system components to see how their mutual effect speeds, slows, tilts, or balances the system as a whole. Feedback loops are as ubiquitous in systems as they are in life. Balancing and reinforcing loops explain why systems operate the way they do. Balancing loops converge towards a target, while reinforcing loops amplify on every turn. Understanding these feedback loops can be the difference between success and failure in a business. In a system, when you make a decision for an individual component based solely on their value, you may overlook how that decision impacts the entire system and decide incorrectly.

Unveiling System Thinking

Systems are emergent, self-organizing, and sustained by feedback. This is the foundation of systems thinking, which has been around for centuries. From Aristotle to modern-day robotics, this concept has been instrumental in understanding complex systems. Drawing causal loop diagrams is at the core of this process. Various disciplines, including systems engineering, soft systems methodology, complexity and chaos theory, and management cybernetics, employ systems thinking to study real-life scenarios. Peter Senge, an MIT professor, stands out as the author of the best-seller ‘The Fifth Discipline,’ where he defined how systemic thinking can transform corporations to become integrated learning organizations. Any reinforcing loop will exhibit either exponential growth or decline, depending on how it’s influenced. Learning the motivations and actions of people in real systems is crucial, according to the soft systems methodology. In essence, systems thinking represents an indispensable tool for comprehending and dissecting complex systems.

The Dynamics of Business Management

Businesses have various objectives, and managing them is about balancing multiple loops. A system of loops involves capability, service quality, and error rates. The workload, cope-ability, and errors are also interrelated. Meanwhile, high-performing teams have mental models in harmony, ensuring fundamental values are aligned. However, a policy to control headcount can have unintended consequences, leading to increased costs in temporary staff, errors, and quality. In essence, all components dynamically and continuously affect one another, highlighting the complexities of managing businesses.

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