Appreciation of a System

Alexander von HumboldtI’ve gained a renewed appreciation for systems as a result of reading an interesting book, The Invention of Nature, about the life and influence of the nineteenth century German celebrity scientist Alexander von Humboldt.

While his name may seem familiar, most of us could not identify this man. But at one point Humboldt was the most famous person in the world. Today we can find more than fifty locations are named after him including counties, cities, districts, forests, rivers, bays, falls, in addition to dozens of plants, animals, organizations and ships.

His influence extended widely to the work scientists and thinkers of his era including John Muir, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and no doubt Thomas Jefferson whom he visited. Above all, Humboldt changed the way we look at the world. Where others before him had mainly observed and classified the natural world, Humboldt measured, recorded data and made connections between the points. He drew conclusions about cause and effect. Where others saw a collection of individual objects or phenomena, he saw a set of connected things that formed a complex whole. He saw a system. Concepts such as the ecosystem, biosphere, the water cycle, the food chain that we take for for granted today were the direct result of his work. Humboldt may be the father of systems thinking.

There is a common misconception that it is easier to break apart and manage parts of a system, rather than managing the whole. Of course it is not possible to get our arms around the whole system at once, but when we recognize that we are part of system, this actually simplifies the picture. For example, processes connected in a flow and triggered by customer pull have fewer control points, are more predictable, and easier to manage and improves than a set of batch-and-queue processes separated by stock. Overcoming this misconception requires an appreciation that the pieces are connected, part of a system.

There are three lessons we can draw from Humboldt’s life on how to appreciate a system.

First, we need to get up close to the parts of the system. Humboldt spent his inheritance on traveling around the world, from rainforests to volcanoes, mountaintops to mine shafts, in order to directly observe, measure, collect data, listen to the locals, document his findings, and look for answers to what caused natural phenomena. Go see. Ask why.

Second, we need curiosity and open-mindedness. Humboldt was driven by curiosity. His perspective was broadened when he met German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Humboldt had been a strict rationalist, but Goethe influenced his scientific study with a sense of wonder and feeling about nature’s inner workings. Humboldt’s discussions with Goethe merging Romanticism and Enlightenment thinking gave him a novel appreciation of nature. While Enlightenment thinking provides the rational, the Romanticism provided what we might call a “respect” for nature. Seemingly opposing points of view combined to provide balance and insight.

Third, we need a long-term perspective. The thinking in Humboldt’s day was that a forest cut down was land cleared for farming or development, lumber harvested, threats from wildlife removed. The short-term benefits were obvious. Humboldt made the connection between deforestation and undesired long-term effects, such as degradation of nearby watercourses and agricultural land. When we attempt to improve performance, failing to appreciate a system and seeking to only cut and not replant, renew and reinvest has larger long-term costs.

In the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Edwards Deming made his great contribution to the understanding of organizations as systems, through his System of Profound Knowledge. There are four components to this system: knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge (the PDSA cycle), psychology and appreciation for a system. The first three components are staples of modern management. The appreciation of a system provides the glue for the other three but remains difficult and elusive for many organizations to truly grasp. The twenty first century awaits for its Humboldt, the next global celebrity natural philosopher who can bring the whole system back into view.


  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    November 29, 2016 - 2:04 pm

    Excellent post Jon. I love these historical deep dives. Two questions:

    1. Would you recommend the book?

    2. If it indicated, when he went to observe, did he start with a framing question that guided his observation or did he begin with unguided observation and then frame the question? I know what my current approach is but am curious to his.

    Thank you!

  2. Jon Miller

    November 29, 2016 - 2:20 pm

    Thanks Jamie

    1. Yes, I recommend the book.

    2. It seems to me that he began with unguided observation born of curiosity and desire to explore, and as he learned about the natural world formed his theories and in later years, purposeful data collection and guided observation.

    An interesting fact gleaned from the book – the word “scientist” was not used prior to 1834. Natural philosophers were just beginning to follow something like the scientific method. It was fascinating to see this development in Humboldt’s life and times.

  3. sam yankelevitch

    December 13, 2016 - 7:25 am

    Great article Jon, seems like Humboldt and Deming had a way of “seeing” those invisible chain forces that affect how things really work.
    Humboldt practiced walking the gemba, no matter how physically separated the system players were. This is not being done in today’s extended supply chains, where design, tooling, manufacturing, delivery are taking place in different continents; systemic cause and effect are so distanced it is tough to determine what is the real source of a problem.
    Therefore most countermeasures are still local, fragmented vs. wholistic.
    How can we instill the change to systemic thinking at the top?