Systems Thinking

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Systems thinking is an approach to viewing systems holistically, rather than focusing on component failures and on direct causal relationships between those components. Through this approach, the components or parts of a system are viewed as integrated and interactive, rather than isolated and independent, shifting attention to the ever-changing influences and relationships among all the different parts. Systems thinking also considers how a system performs within a larger system. Examining systems through this view is necessary to make sense of the connections and interactions among their components or parts. Some of these interactions are predictable or at least knowable. Systems thinking is critical to recognize the extent to which the interactions within a system are unpredictable, unknowable, and of equal or even greater interest than the performance and reliability of its individual components.


1. Types of Systems

The aviation system is comprised of systems varying in size and complexity. These systems are classified as simple, complicated, and complex. While systems thinking is particularly useful in the synthesis of complex systems, it is nonetheless important to understand the differences and interactions of these distinct classes.

2. Supporting complex system performance

Command and control tactics such as compliance with Standards and procedures, and meeting prescribed training requirements typically work well for addressing simple- or complicated-system performance with its predictable interactions and behaviors. However, these methods are often not enough when the interactions within a system are very context dependent and unpredictable. Therefore, management of a complex system for the benefit of system performance requires additional approaches than for a simple or complicated system.

Systems thinking provides the foundation for identifying complex systems and for recognizing the limits of methods which were developed for handling simple and complicated systems. Systems thinking enables the development of strategies which can move system performance away from total reliance on prescriptive standards, regulations and rules to include more performance-based approaches that foster learning, adaptability, and resilience. These can develop when we value expertise, facilitate the sharing of perspectives, encourage transparency of information, and create an environment where decision making is driven by an understanding of context and a thorough analysis of credible data.

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