In the United States, we are very goal oriented. We have annual goals. There are smart goals; revenue goals; and performance goals. There are even big, hairy, audacious goals. We are “goal” obsessed. While there are positives to setting goals — such as creating motivation — there are often times where goals can become a hindrance; they can cause us to focus on one thing while not evaluating how it fits into the broader picture. Additionally, the moment you set a goal, you are living in a state of failure. You want to achieve something, but you haven’t. For some, this could lead to paralysis. For others, once a goal is achieved, old, negative habits could come back. The achievement of a goal only leads to temporary results. The goal leads to a condition that wasn’t sustainable.
Perhaps a better route would be to develop a system — in essence, designing a set of conditions that work harmoniously with all aspects of your life, and that you can easily, without thinking, repeat time and again. Systems-based thinking is a natural part of strategic thought, and in many ways, MEP engineers should be naturally adept at the process, considering that creating construction documents is an exercise in system thinking. But system thinking can be applied not just to engineering, but also to professional development, life and games, to name a few.
In one of my LinkedIn articles from 2020, I spoke about a card game I played as a kid called “Magic: The Gathering.” Per Wikipedia, “Magic: The Gathering” (colloquially known as Magic cards, Magic or just MTG) is a collectible and digital collectible card game. Each game of Magic represents a battle between wizards who cast spells, use artifacts and summon creatures as depicted on individual cards in order to defeat their opponents, typically, but not always, by draining them of their 20 starting life points in the standard format. Most spells come in one of five colors: White, blue, black, red and green.”
Most of my friends went for medium-to-big cross-color creature combinations and spells, hoping that a diversified portfolio of characters and spells would overcome their opponents. I noticed something different: Blue (representing water; oh, the irony looking back on it now), which had a lot of small, inexpensive, characters and spells, was often ignored, but had a really unique system of cards:
One could deny an opponent the opportunity to play their characters while simultaneously playing small characters that could inflict small amounts of damage to their opponent over time. What’s further, being the systems thinker (and let’s face it, also nerd) that I am, I realized that I could increase the likelihood of getting the cards I wanted if I focused my entire deck on blue, rather than diversifying my colors.
The result? With my deck of “blue Magic card deck” I was undefeated against my friends and every game played out the same way — every card they played, I would “reject” back to their hand or to their discard pile while on my turns, I would play small creatures that grew into a larger army that kept chipping away at their life points. The result was a slow, strangulating victory where my opponent would lose all their life points one or two at a time per turn, while I would remain mostly untouched the entire game. I won every time. It finally got to the point that if I showed up with my “blue deck," my friends refused to play me because they felt they would lose before a single card was played, so I had to create other “colored” decks to make them feel the odds were fairer. My focus-based strategy was so superior to my opponents’ that I was able to achieve what Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
From the example above, systems thinking is all about increasing the odds of success. In many ways, it pulls in strategic-thinking concepts like focus and flexibility. Systems thinking is all about finding multiple ways to win; it builds resiliency in dealing with challenging circumstances. Who wouldn’t like more of that now?
The challenge in developing systems-based thinking for yourself or your organization is you need to balance opposing concepts. You need discipline, but also freedom. You need to value performance and humanity. And you need all these things to work together. System design, like MEP engineering, needs to make sure the various components of individual lives or organizations work together seamlessly, and in the same direction. It’s no easy task for sure. And beware those who want to take components of one system and replicate them somewhere else partially — this is prone to failure. Systems-based thinking is holistic in nature — copy and pasting is a no-go.
Real life examples
There are numerous examples of systems thinking in our everyday life from which we can draw for inspiration.
After working in the automotive industry and speaking with several insiders while growing up in Detroit, I came to realize that the Japanese (and to a different extent German) automotive manufacturers just had a different thought process when it came to creating cars. One translator told me “while American automakers tried to create exceptional individual components, the Japanese were focused on making sure the entire car worked as a unit.” Part of this is likely due to the KAIZEN system that Toyota developed with great success to create incredibly reliable cars. (Interestingly, there is a worthwhile article that highlights John Boyd’s thoughts on KAIZEN verses innovation/lean  – where Boyd rips apart the idea of lean as it didn’t focus on people. Boyd’s thoughts on the matter are summarized by his note: “Investing in KAIZEN means investing in people. In Short, KAIZEN is people oriented, whereas innovation [or lean] is technology and money oriented.”)
Perhaps one reason we aren’t as good at systems thinking in the United States as other countries is even our sports tend to be “goal focused” instead of systems based. An example of this is how most of the decision making is left to coaches in American sports. Football coaches call the plays for their offense. Basketball coaches call a pick-and-roll. Baseball coaches use signals to indicate when to steal a base. But when you play soccer (or even hockey), coach decision-making ability goes out the window as the game is more fluid. Soccer players need to not only be athletic, but also need to have solid decision-making abilities in order to play the game well. For organizations, systems-based thinking manifests itself in driving the decision-making ability to the lowest level, in this case the players on the field.
If you don’t believe me that systems-based thinking drives decision making ability down to the lowest level, just take a look at the Oregon Ducks and their dramatic rise (and then slight fall) from college football’s elite. Oregon is not a traditional football powerhouse like Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, USC or Ohio State, but when Chip Kelly took over the Oregon offense and later the head coaching position in the late 2000s, he began changing the Ducks into an absolute monster of team. How did he do it? In essence, he applied systems thinking (and maneuver-warfare concepts) to the operation of his team. Oregon focused its recruiting on players that were fast (although perhaps not as strong or heavy). It also took the concept of the “spread offense” (spreading players all across the field so the defense has to cover more area) and added chaos by speeding up the cadence at which plays were called. By calling plays more quickly the defense was often unorganized, leading to quick breakthroughs and touchdowns. But not only did Oregon have fast players running plays more quickly, it added another element that was the final key to its success: The coaches drove the decision making down to the players by giving at least the quarterback, and then also the running backs and wide receivers “options” in the plays that they ran. The result was opposing defenses had difficulty in dealing with the resulting chaos that Oregon created. So, why has Oregon declined since its peak? In part because it didn’t innovate further, and many other teams began to mimic their system. Now, many college teams and even some professional teams (from time to time) run a version of the high-tempo, spread-option offense that Oregon trailblazed (pun intended).
So, what about our industry? Is a regulated and established industry like construction ripe for more systems thinking? I think so, and I believe in some ways we are beginning to see some new systems-thinking in the form of design-build and integrated project delivery. The potential problem I see with some of these new versions of delivery is while the ideas are new, the technology usage has improved and money is saved, the focus on people appears to not be there. How much time is spent figuring out the ideal team (especially if multiple companies are collaborating)? Are personalities, experience and behaviors (among other traits) of all stakeholders and team members analyzed before commencing a project? Are potential friction points identified ahead of time? Is this the first time or the 10th time that the various team members are working together? Do project incentives align? Are there any potential conflicts of interest between team members? My sense is these questions are often still in the process of being answered.
In the meantime, there is a great opportunity for us to develop our own individual system. Perhaps instead of setting a goal to lose 10 pounds, you create a system for yourself and you schedule 30 minutes of exercise every day. Or you determine to improve yourself professionally and decide to listen to a professional improvement book on your drive to and from work daily. In the office, perhaps you start applying systems thinking to your job. Perhaps you can try and figure out if your discipline team has a calculation that can be standardized to speed up the design process. Or perhaps you can look at the projects on which you are working, see if there are common attributes among them and point out the projects that mismatch to your manager. (Keep in mind, mismatches can be the first sign of a potential problem.) And finally, and most critically, apply systems-based thinking to the engineering you do daily — plumbing engineering needs more holistic thinking and this is a great way to make yourself stand out!