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Connecting Systems Science, Thinking and Engineering to Systems Practice for Managing Complexity


  • Dr. Ray Jonkers Dr
  • Dr. Kamran Eftekhari Shahroudi


Few organizations are fully integrated, program and engineering disciplines often work in isolation, and most organizations have misgivings in their ability to manage complexity.  On the other hand, there are a few bright spots by way of mature forward-looking organizations that have achieved limited integration through Systems Thinking, advanced models and tools.  This requires overcoming the hurdles of resistance to change and adopting new best practices.

Complexity is inherent in the organization, its stakeholders and in its cross-functional processes.   In large technical projects, complexity exists within the product design and its interrelated components.  Adding to this complexity, how the techno-socio-economic and cultural factors affect the organization, its processes and product are not well understood.

This disconnectedness and inability to understand underlying relationships have led to project cost overruns, rework and delays.  Despite the use of traditional discipline specific-tools and models, product and project failures continue.  When problems occur, shifting the burden from an optimal solution to a quick symptomatic solution can often occur without easy-to-use integrated decision support tools, as well as the processes for using them. 

It has been recognized that integrated decision support tools and models are needed to overcome the challenges in managing complexity.  However, for these tools to be useful, they need to address the complexities of the organization, processes, product and the practical hurdles that affect them.  As well, these tools need to monitor the emergent behaviour and performance of these connected entities throughout the product lifecycle.

There are a number of foundational pillars proposed for the integration of organizations and the development of integrated tools.  These pillars include Systems Thinking, dynamics, engineering and a digital thread between discipline specific models and tools.

Systems Thinking provides for a new perspective and appreciation of the interrelationships within an organization, its processes and its product design.  System Dynamics (SD), as a rigorous tool for Systems Thinking, provides for an understanding of the factors and complexity in these interrelationships.  Systems Engineering (SE) looks at the design, integration and management of complex systems.  With advancement of data analytics, visualization and intelligence augmentation comes easier construction of digital threads for connecting disparate models and tools.  Integrated management models can facilitate and add rigor to Systems Thinking and reduce complexity through a better understanding of interrelationships.  Moreover, a well constructed integrated model can provide for the gaming of change scenarios, trade studies, knowledge growth, and a decision support tool for optimal solutions.  

Standards are in the works for developing digital threads and frameworks to enable integration. However, the challenge is much broader than just solving the digital thread interconnection issue.  With use of existing technology, Systems Thinking and systems dynamics, an integrated decision-support model was developed and presented at the International Council on Systems Engineering Project Management (PM) and Systems Engineering (SE) Integration Working Group (Jonkers 2020, INCOSE PM-SE WG).  However, the authors of the current paper experienced resistance from SE and PM practitioners and senior leadership at this forum.  Similar resistance was experienced during presentation of the model to mature engineering companies that designed and manufactured safety critical products. These hurdles and potential ways to overcome them are discussed in this paper.

Partially integrated models and tools exist in systems engineering, project management and the social sciences.  Model-based systems engineering and integrated model-based tools have made inroads predominately in the aerospace industry, but for the most part, there has been reluctance to adopt such tools.  While a structured approach by way of foundational pillars has been proposed, it can be difficult for organizations to decide what tools to adopt without a roadmap or process to guide them.

As a first step, increasing knowledge in Systems Thinking is viewed as a catalyst in moving toward integration of people, processes and the product.  Systems Thinking has been viewed as the cornerstone to enabling positive outcomes including shared perspectives and a shared vision, knowledge growth and a learning culture.

The next step involves shaping a governance framework based on proposed foundational pillars for integration.  This framework includes best practices by associations that offer practical tools for integration.  These associations include those who follow a systematic planned approach such as six-sigma methodology and systems engineering.