I’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.