Systems Thinking – Process Thinking vs. Systems Thinking

Here at EAC we view Product Development as a system. This stands in counterpoint to the traditional western way of looking at product development as a process. In fact when we promote product development as a system, and that thinking as being more important than looking at it as a process, we often get head scratching in return.

Western traditional management likes to break work down into small pieces and delegate them as tasks. It reduces work into a set of repeatable steps. In some parts of the business that’s wonderful. Think of manufacturing or any area where the process is transactional and non-variable. In those instances process thinking is terrifically beneficial. We can take repeatable steps and proceduralize them because we know if we follow steps exactly we will get consistent output results. Think again of the manufacturing line or something mundane like washing the dishes. You clear the table, scrape the scraps into the wastebasket, rinse the plates to see if anything is baked on or caked on, and then you load the dishwasher and push the button. Then you return later and you get the desirable, repeatable, results of clean dishes.

When we moved to this mental model of product development as a process or process thinking, at first it was advantageous. We brought in patterns of behavior. We broke product development down to milestone phases. It was advantageous to provide guidance to project managers as they trek through milestone phases. But, as issues arose additional management responsibilities and details were added to the process. The focus of product development / project management shifted from the creation of market based value to an administrative checklist — checking the steps you’ve actually accomplished in your product development process.

The way we now implement stage-gate process in product development has made it almost impossible to have a successful project. The antidote to that is to start applying systems thinking. Systems thinking is based upon, not a collection of elements in a system but, the interaction of the elements of the system — the dynamic. We see people, processes, teams, technology, and tools all as elements in the product development system. The operational dynamic between these elements is what determines the quality of your workflow, your information flow, and if you’ve embraced it, your continuous improvement operation inside of product development.

If your product development environment is characterized by conflict and hostility, then you’re probably locked into a restrictive and constrictive process thinking approach to product development. Shift your thinking from that linear process thinking — Task, Complete, Task, Complete — to the closed loop ideas of systems thinking where you have feedback loops and mutual cause and effect of the elements within your operation.

Process thinking was a meaningful advance in the 20th century. It brought improvement to product development, but it’s time to move on to Systems thinking. As you take what ever your washing machine is and redesign it, don’t do it with process thinking, do it with systems thinking. We’re 15% of the way through the 21st century. It’s time you joined the 21st century revolution in systems thinking.


Contact EAC to learn more about how Systems Thinking and the application of our Product Development Operating System can help your organization become more efficient, productive, innovative, and competitive.