University of Pennsylvania
2("/*:"4*0/"-9/".*$3 02,*/("1&23 2("/*:"4*0/"-9/".*$320(2".3
% ! &!"
University of Pennsylvania+1$0/35-4"0-$0.
University of Pennsylvania&27&8-&2"-5./*51&//&%5
University of Pennsylvania7%&//*33"351&//&%5
052%&)/"%0)/ &8-&22*$""/% *-30/&//*3934&.3&3*(/=*/,*/(0/$&145"-2".&702,'02=&*2
/4&2(2"4*0/ Organizational Dynamics Working Papers
% ! &!"#&
Systems & Design Thinking: A Conceptual
Framework for Their Integration
John Pourdehnad, PhD, University of Pennsylvania
Erica R. Wexler, MSOD, University of Pennsylvania
Dennis V. Wilson, University of Pennsylvania
This paper explores the relationship between Systems and Design Thinking. It
specifically looks into the role of Design in Systems Thinking and how looking at the
world through a systems lens influences Design. Our intention is to show the critical
concepts developed in the Systems and Design Thinking fields, their underlying
assumptions, and the ways in which they can be integrated as a cohesive conceptual
While there are many important distinctions that must be considered to understand the
similarities and differences of these concepts, gaining a complete understanding of these
factors is more than can be covered in this paper. Nevertheless, the most critical
classifying variable used to distinguish these concepts will be discussed in order to make
their integration possible.
This variable, the recognition of purposeful behavior, will be used to develop a
conceptual vision for how a combined approach can be used to research, plan, design and
manage social systems…Systems in which people play the principle role.
Analysis, Design Thinking, Integrative Thinking, Problem Solving, Synthesis, Systems
Relevance to Design Practice
How well we deal with emergent problematic conditions depends on the quality of the
approaches we use and try to implement. These approaches depend more on our
philosophy and "world view" than on science and technology. Design practices will
benefit from consciously integrating the System’s world view into its methodology.
Introduction: Context, Systems World View and Design Thinking
World views integrate experience and influence the way we frame and approach
problems. A world view (also known as a mindset, mental model, or paradigm) controls
what questions we ask and what answers we consider legitimate. The demand to change
the prevailing world view of any situation arises when we are unable to fit the facts,
assumed problems or observations into the existing paradigm. Any of these anomalies
can create a dilemma. Russell L. Ackoff (1981) defined a dilemma as "a problem, which
cannot be solved within the current world view." A set of dilemmas generates new
approaches to thinking about them. The anomalies are worked on and studied, and some
are eventually addressed as a new and different paradigm emerges. Ackoff went on to
note that a change in paradigm is underway in our society and has been set in motion by a
set of dilemmas.
This sentiment has recently been echoed by many systems and design thinkers
faced with the complexity of today’s business challenges. During the Creative Industries
Convention 2010, designers identified the growing interest in developing new business
models that can help them work in different ways. While it was acknowledged that there
is some fear in the pending paradigm shift, it is becoming clear to designers that change
toward a collaborative way of approaching problems is imperative.
The need for change in paradigm is further emphasized by the use of Einstein’s
famous quote that says: “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that
created them.” Much of the confusion we encounter in problem solving today results
from misconceptions about the nature of change in social systems and their environments.
Moreover, it has become evident that traditional organizational forms, planning
methodologies and response strategies are inadequate for addressing complex problems.
This is especially true when applied to emerging conditions having an increased rate of
change, increased complexity and increased uncertainty. This inadequacy, in large part,
stems from the nature of the traditional paradigm which relies on existing knowledge --
knowledge gained by studying traditional approaches.
Gareth Morgan (2006) posits that metaphors play an important role in understanding
organizations and management. The use of metaphor implies a way of thinking and a way
of seeing that pervade how we understand our world generally. The resulting mindsets
that develop are the products of historical circumstances. Currently, most of the
metaphors used to describe organizations and their complex problems are derived from
the “machine” age and the mechanistic world view.
The world views that we develop and the metaphors that we use to describe what we
see directly influence the underlying assumptions we make about the situation we are
looking at, and therefore, the approach we take. Since our understanding of organizations
is informed by looking at organizations through multiple metaphors or images, it is
important to approach problems from more than one framework.
This paper, among other things, will explore two of the possible frameworks that are
used to approach problems: a Systems Thinking approach and a Design Thinking
approach. Systems Thinkers look to formulate and subsequently dissolve complex
problems from a systemic world view, while Design Thinkers approach the same
complex problems from a variety of perspectives. Consciously selecting a conceptual
model that combines the differing Systems and Design approaches to problem resolution
will increase the probability of successful and sustainable implementation.
Systems Thinking World View
"Systems thinking" or the "systems view of the world" is evolving as an alternative to
the old paradigms. (Flood and Jackson, 1991). Mattesich (1982) writes that "systems
thinking is first and foremost a point of view and a methodology arising out of this view
point." It is a lens through which you can look at the world and that lens determines what
you see. Also, it often determines what you do about what you see.
Systems thinking as a mindset evolved from General Systems Theory, with the work
of Austrian biologist Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1937. Systems Thinking has been
adapted by many circles since WWII. In its current manifestation, it is used to provide a
different perspective to understand the world (including organizations) and our
conception of its nature.
Systems thinking replaces reductionism (the belief that everything can be reduced
to individual parts), cause and effect (environment free theory of explanation), and
determinism (fatalism) with expansionism (the system can always be a sub-system of
some larger system), producer-product (environment-full theory of explanation) and
indeterminism (probabilistic thinking). Additionally, it replaces analysis (gain knowledge
the system by understanding its parts) with synthesis (explaining the role of the system in
the larger system of which it is a part). Analysis is useful for revealing how a system
works but synthesis reveals why a system works the way it does. (Ackoff, 1999)
Many methodologies are derived from the systems thinking world view including
interactive planning, soft systems thinking, systems dynamics, and the viable model to
name a few. Regardless of methodology, the essence of systems thinking is encapsulated
in the concept of systemic wholeness, which is grasped by looking at the whole instead of
the parts. As a result, when an organization is considered a system, it implies an
interconnected complex of functionally related components. Failing to consider the
systemic properties as derived from the interaction of the parts leads to sub-optimization
of the performance of the whole.
One of the consequences of Systems Thinking is the willingness to sacrifice the
performance of the part for the performance of the whole. This is in opposition to
maximizing the performance of any one given part at the risk of sub-optimizing the
performance of the whole. With systems thinking, managers and designers must learn
how the parts of their organization interact, not how they perform
independently. Otherwise, unintended consequences may emerge as changes made
within one part of the system may adversely affect other parts of the system not initially
considered. Often, these new problems are much worse than those addressed initially. It
is for this reason that Ackoff (1999) suggests many performance-improvement initiative
fail and actually throw fuel on the fires they seek to extinguish.
Design Thinking Defined
In recent years and independent of the systems thinking movement, there has been a great
interest in “Design Thinking.” But design in management is not something new. Design
philosophy in management has its roots in Egyptian and Mesopotamian bureaucracies.
Even Taylorism was considered a new design philosophy in the early 20th century!
However, it is important to note that design thinking does not adhere to a specific
worldview. This is a significant difference from systems thinking.
Currently, there are many contrasting and even widely divergent concepts of the
design process and what makes someone a designer. Additionally, there are many
organizations that are cited as examples of companies promoting a Design Thinking
culture (e.g., P&G). What does this mean?
Buckminster Fuller, in his introduction to a book written by Victor Papanek (1971)
says that design for him can mean either a mental conception or a physical pattern. The
essence of design for him is the notion of a pattern of events organized into discrete and
interacting elements. For him, "the opposite of design is chaos." The ubiquity of the
design process and the variety of criteria used in its actualization is described by Papanek,
who on "what is design" writes:
“All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is
basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired,
foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it
a thing-by-itself, works counter to the inherent value of design as the primary underlying
matrix of life. . . . Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.”
To illustrate, however, that the general design function does have some structure,
Papanek further asserts that the general design function must incorporate considerations
of: Methods (tools, processes); Use (does it work?); Need (real vs. evanescent
requirements); Telesis (reflection of the times and conditions surrounding the project);
Association (psychological connections with aspects of the project); and Aesthetics
(shaping colors, textures, etc. into pleasing forms).
According to Nigel Cross (2006), designers have specific abilities to "produce novel
unexpected solutions, tolerate uncertainty, work with incomplete information, apply
imagination and forethought to practical problems and use drawings and other modeling
media as means of problem solving." He further argues that designers must be able to
resolve ill-defined problems, adopt solution-focusing strategies, employ
abductive/productive/appositional thinking and use non-verbal, graphic and spatial
Architects are examples of designers who operate from this mode of thinking. Bryan
Lawson (2004) has conducted research which shows that when the same problem is given
to architects and Ph.D.s, architects develop the best solution in no time. Boland and
Collopy (2004) experienced more or less the same thing. When working with architects
they noticed that these "design thinkers" do not adhere to the traditional model of
decision making/problem solving. Instead of developing options and evaluating the
alternative options, they design the best option from the start!
The term Design Thinking, as recently defined by one of its proponents, is now
generally referred to as applying a designer's sensibility and methods to problem solving,
NO MATTER WHAT THE PROBLEM IS. Tim Brown (2009) explains that it is not a
substitute for professional design or the art and craft of designing, but rather "a
methodology for innovation and enablement." There are many who argue that Design
Thinking is the third culture (area) in education besides science and humanities (arts).
(Nigel Cross, 2006) It seems that lately some in the management sciences think that
there is a lot to be learned from the way that designers think (including the abductive
logic) and the way they "know" that could help us with innovative solutions (compared to
the role of research in science).
Jonathan Baron (2008) says that "thinking is important to all of us in our daily lives.
The way we think affects the way we plan our lives, the personal goals we choose, and
the decisions we make." We've already mentioned how at one end of spectrum you have
analytical thinkers who hone and refine their existing models even as they get less and
less valid. At the other extreme are intuitive thinkers who say it's all gut and deny they
are using any logic at all. Einstein stated that “The workings of intuition transcend those
of the intellect, and as is well known, innovation is often a triumph of intuition over
logic.” (Holton, 1997)
Charles Sanders Peirce (Hawthorne, 1958) was most interested in the origin of new
ideas. It was this interest in new ideas that ultimately led him to argue that no new ideas
could ever be proven via the application of Deductive or Inductive reasoning and that it
required what he called a “logical leap of the mind.” He further argued that when new
data exists, and that data does not neatly fit into a currently understood model, the first
activity to be performed by the mind is to wonder. Wondering, as opposed to observing,
is the key to Abductive reasoning. It is the act of creatively thinking about what can be
done with the data in order to orient it to the environment that sets Abductive reasoning
apart from Deductive or Intuitive reasoning. Since the data is new, there is no method of
reliably determining the appropriate method of dealing with the data; therefore, a
practitioner must rely on, as stated earlier, a “logical leap of the mind” to make sense of
the new data.
In a recent interview, Roger Martin (2009) was asked "What do you mean by the
term design thinking?" He responded that "design thinkers are willing to use all three
kinds of logic to understand their world.” We infer this to mean that he was referring to
deductive, inductive and abductive thinking. Martin says that Design Thinking is the only
mode of thought that will allow an organization to move knowledge through the
Knowledge Funnel, the path taken when an organization travels from mystery to a
heuristic of its business environment, and finally to a reliable algorithm for its behavior
within that environment. Further, Martin says that it is the interplay between these two
extremes of the exploration of a mystery and the exploitation of an algorithm where
Design Thinking emerges.
Martin to greater extent explains that neither Analytic nor Intuitive Thinking alone is
enough to sustain competitive advantage since each, while providing tremendous strength,
also create scenarios of systemic weakness if applied in isolation. He also makes clear
that the goal of abductive reasoning is not to declare a conclusion to be true or
false. Instead, it is to posit what could possibly be true. And so it is theorized that design
thinkers are using abductive logic but failing to make it explicit to themselves or anyone
else. It is this mode of thinking that allows a designer to seek out new ways of doing
things, challenge old ways of doing things and infer what might be possible. It is the
careful, balanced application of the reliable lessons of the past and the logically valid
leaps of what might be in the future.
The design thinker bridges these two worlds, and works to make the abductive logic
which design thinkers use more explicit so that it can be shared and refined. Fred
Collopy (2009) recently wrote in Fast Company:
So if thinking is at the center of the activity that we want to encourage, it is not the kind of thinking
that doctors and lawyers, professors and business people already do. It is not a feet up, data spread
across the desk to be absorbed kind of thinking. It is a pencil in hand, scribbling on the board sort of
And while that may be obvious to those close to the process already, we are afraid it
is not what folks conjure up when they first hear the phrase design thinking. From this
perspective, then, it is ultimately the Design Thinker’s responsibility to know which
method to apply and when. However, it has been pointed out by many current
practitioners, including Roger Martin, that there is little or no formal training provided in
our institutions for executives or management in the creative design process.
The appeal of Design Thinking lies in its human-centered heuristics and growing
track record of success. Numerous examples of these successes can be cited, such as
IDEO (a design company in California that has designed many successful products). As
more is written about the application of design thinking in the business world, what is
becoming clearer is that it is most commonly applied to product-oriented problems
despite its clear value to the design of innovative services, systems and processes. While
successful applications do exist in this area, they are less commonly highlighted.
Language matters. We cannot help thinking that we are selling our ideas short given
the momentum behind the current choice of language. And, we wonder, how much
designing and/or thinking has actually gone into DESIGN THINKING? While the
strengths of taking a design approach are seen in the successful outcomes, the term
design thinking is becoming so common that this approach is facing the risk of becoming
yet another meaningless fashionable term without true business value.
The Role that Design Plays in Systems Thinking
Design in Systems Thinking is not the same as design in Design Thinking. We
acknowledge that there are many divergent views on design within the systems process;
however, there is agreement upon a number of underlying principles that systems
thinkers take when planning toward a desired future. While a full explanation of these
principles goes beyond the scope of this paper, systems thinkers, generally, aim to do
something today to improve the system tomorrow.
In systems thinking, design (based on Aristotelian/Singerian teleological imagery) is
a core concept that is characterized as "a creative act which attempts to estimate how
alternative sets of behavior patterns would serve specified sets of goals." In the Systems
community, Design became the preferred approach to problem solving and planning for a
variety of reasons: the belief in the synthetic mode of thought; the belief that the future is
subject to creation (design being the creative process); the belief that you need to dissolve
problems (and not solve) through redesign of the system; etc.
Van Gigh (1978) and Warfield (1983) argue that "design" is to the systems approach
as "continuous improvement" is to the scientific approach. They point out that design is a
process, which requires the ability to question prior or existing assumptions regarding the
ultimate state to be achieved. We think this raises a question as to who the designer is and
whether he or she is a specific breed with superior cognitive capabilities.
To understand the role of Design in Systems Thinking, it is helpful to look at
Ackoff’s (1981) view on planning. Ackoff describes four orientations to planning:
Reactivism, Inactivism, Preactivism and Interactivism. Reactivists are those planners who
embrace the past. Inactivists are those planners who are generally satisfied with the way
things are in the present and seek to avoid making mistakes within the current system;
they seek to avoid errors of commission. Preactivist planners are unsatisfied with the past
as well as the current environment and seek change. The Preactivist planner seeks to
understand all aspects of the future that may affect the success of the phenomenon they
are planning for; they seek to avoid errors of omission. Professional planners forecast the
future and organizational officers set objectives based on the planners’ predictions.
Finally, Interactive planners believe the future is subject to creation. They believe the
best means of revealing a desirable future is by enabling the stakeholders to do it
Not surprisingly, the Ackoffian systems thinker embraces the Interactive Planning
perspective. The Interactive Planner believes our failures are often due to misguided
assumptions made when planning for how our future ought to be. They believe
knowledge of the past does not enable the ability to solve complex problems and they
seek to avoid both errors of commission as well as omission.
Given Papenak’s (1979) view that “design is basic to all human activity” and
Ackoff’s view that the future is subject to creation, Interactive Planning is Design. It is
Interactive Design…more specifically, it is the execution of Design Thinking with a
On Designing, With and Without the Systems World View
Bausch (2002) says that:
Design literacy is the crying need of our age. To accomplish its goals, system design cannot be a
top-down operation nor can it be expert driven. It must actively involve the stakeholders of the design
in shaping a shared vision that represents their ideas, aspirations, values and ideals.
Taking this view, a Social Systems Designer, one who plans, redesigns, manages
and organizes Social Systems, embraces a Systems world view when designing the future
of a given Social System. And given this, it is the role of the stakeholders in the design
process that separates the Systems Thinkers approach to design from that of the Design
We believe we have identified the core differences in the Systems Thinking and
Design Thinking approaches to problem resolution:
Systems Thinking methodologies arose from the consideration of social systems.
The stakeholders are the designers.
Design Thinking methodologies arose from the consideration of products and
artifacts. The problems are ultimately resolved by people identified as a designer
by trade. The stakeholders are observed and studied by the design team (cf
Deep Dive approach as practiced by IDEO)
An integrated approach to problem resolution requires design thinkers to expand
their understanding of good systems design principles with a purposeful consideration of
the social systems they are working within. During the Creative Industries Convention
2010, Andrea Goetze (2010) noted that today’s design industry can no longer take a
structured development approach, where a single creative genius locks himself in a room
for three years before emerging with a solution. Instead, she explained that designers
must find a way to change their role from one of the sole expert to one of a service
provider or facilitator. Goetze also commented that designers will need to become more
flexible and open to input from others and put the product in the middle of the process
instead of the design practitioner. It is important to involve more people who collaborate
together, including the users of the product, because only this way will they have
ownership and make the implementation easier.
These comments show that design thinkers are moving away from First Generation
of Design, where the act of designing is the prerogative of a certain talented group called
“designers.” (Olsen, 1982) The First Generation Design Methods rely heavily on
professionalism, in the sense that the professional is viewed as the holder of knowledge
that is critical to design, and inaccessible to the user of the design. The professional
creates a design and, because of his expertise and sense of responsibility, is under no
obligation to go further. This approach is the one typically taken in the past in the design
of operating systems. It is frequently described as an "over the wall" approach. In this
approach the designer develops an operating system design on paper, and supplies all the
documentation and blueprints to a contractor who converts the paper design to a physical
system. This mode of supplying is, figuratively, to throw the design over the wall that
separates the professional design organization from the contractor or user.
Designers today more often operate from the Second Generation of Design. As
Goetze (2010) noted, they recognize the need for collaboration among designers and
external perspectives to guide them. Deep Dive methodology, as practiced by IDEO, for
example, has made it standard practice for designers to gain input from many different
stakeholders, including the end user. The design team observes and interacts within the
larger system environment (in order to immerse themselves in the situation) before going
back to the design table to piece the data together and design a solution. There is no
question that such ethnographic and anthropological studies have added tremendous
value to the solutions that are generated. This is where Design Thinking today seems to
incorporate some aspects of Systems Thinking.
There is still risk with this approach, however. Even though there are many
perspectives involved in parts of the design process, they are observed and give feedback
in parts. The stakeholders give input based solely from their individual experiences and
never see how it fits into the whole system. It is still, therefore, the role of the designer to
piece it all together. They need to get into the heads of the stakeholders and attempt to
interpret what they think. Because neither the organization nor the end user has been
involved in the entirety of the design process, there is a need to elicit their buy-in. There
is also the risk that a key stakeholder group will be missed. We caution that there are
often unintended consequences when interdependent pieces of the larger system have not
been consciously considered in the context of the whole system.
As mentioned previously, Tim Brown’s (2009) defines Design Thinking as “an
approach that uses the designer's sensibility and methods for problem solving to meet
people's needs in a technologically feasible and commercially viable way. In other words,
design thinking is human-centered innovation." It is in the use of the “designer’s
sensibility…to meet people’s needs” where the Design Thinker strays from the System
Even Brown (2008) worries about this risk when he says:
One of the principles of design thinking is that it requires empathy for users to inspire ideas.
Normally we think about getting that from ethnographic style research. Diving deep into the lives of a
relatively small number of people, understanding the environment they live in, their social networks,
seeing things first hand. We have lots of evidence that this works, but I sometimes wonder if we
aren’t also missing something. The problem with looking deeply at a few people is that you miss the
opportunity for insights that might come by connecting more broadly across cultures.
This reliance on professionalism is strewn throughout the Design culture. Take for
instance a recent blog post by Designer Kevin McCullagh (2010):
Let's agree that all of humanity are designers, and that design is one of the things that separates us
from the apes. As Jonathan Ive put it: 'Design is not important. Good design is important.' First, when
we talk of designers, we usually mean professional designers, who have reached an accepted level of
competence. They have survived a Darwinian selection process (there are far more graduates than
jobs) and have clocked up well over 10,000 hours of practice on projects. We should remember that
designers learn by doing, not by learning and practicing a theory, designing involves a lot more tacit
knowledge than in other areas of business. It's therefore hard to believe that senior managers can
change their thinking habits of a lifetime after a workshop or two working with designers. And, to be
frank, to suggest as much devalues what designers do.
Additionally, a key factor in creating good design that really does make a difference is great
designers. These talented individuals are few and far between and provide critical competitive
advantage. Let's forget about design thinking as a magic process, and focus on how designers and
managers should best work together to deliver great quality outputs.
The Systems Thinking world view offers a method of doing just that. We propose
that by taking this approach, Design Thinkers can move into a Third Generation of
Design, which builds in a purposeful consideration of Systems Thinking principles. It
therefore addresses many of the challenges of trying to get into the heads of others. A
successful design is not one which is imposed on or provided to the organization from a
source external to the system. The best way to ensure that the design will serve the
purpose of the organization is to include the stakeholders in the formulation of the design.
Hence, the success of a design is directly related to the level of stakeholder participation
in the development of the design.
In the Third Generation of Design, the stakeholders are the designers. They are
not external sources of input. Instead, they are the concept generators and concept
implementers (Barabba, 1995). An underlying principle of interactive planning is that
people must be allowed to plan for themselves (Jackson, 2003). In fact, to reach
objectivity in social systems, the process must involve the interaction of groups of
individuals with diverse values. It becomes the role of the design facilitator to therefore
create an environment where these differing views are honored within the context of the
larger system. Creating a shared vision of the future can also be described as finding
“common ground”, a place where participants are able to get past the current situation
and make decisions based on what is good for the system. (Weisbord, 2003) In fact,
designing creative solutions becomes much more straightforward if the practitioner is
able to address the conflicts that arise due to differing stakeholder values, beliefs and
world views. (Jackson, 2003)
By empowering all stakeholders from the beginning, it is possible to tap the creative
energy of every participant so that innovative ideas emerge from the collective of the
differing perspectives. This concept was described as “authentic engagement” in one of
the seven laws of Dialogic Design. Laouris’ Law of Requisite Action, another of the
Dialogic Design Laws, asserts that “action plans that are not founded on authentic
engagement of the stakeholders in the dialogue and deliberation are unethical and are
bound to fail.” (Christakis, 2006)
One thing that design practitioners using a systems approach bring to the table is
ability to help an organization take ownership of the ideas that emerge through the design
process. This is a critical consideration for today’s designers. It is much more likely that
the ideas generated will be implemented and maintained if the stakeholders involved
were the one who came up with the solutions in the first place. When people within an
organization have had input throughout a change process and believe they have
influenced the direction things are going in, the resistance to new ideas dissipates. (Rehm,
It is important for designers to be able to help an organization and the participants
uncover the underlying assumptions they are making about the problem they think needs
to be solved. Often cultural assumptions and traditions contribute to the problem they are
working on. (Shuman, 2006) Cultural assumptions include those specific to leadership,
both formal and informal. This can have a direct affect on how effectively they approach
the assumed problem. A designer applying Systems Thinking principles can help
participants recognize the assumptions the organization and the individual participants
hold. In this way a designer can provide them with the means to develop a new
framework and shared world view.
Case Study: An Integrated Approach to Problem Resolution in
In 2009 Johns Hopkins Hospital was anticipating their 2011 relocation to new
multibillion dollar quarters. Relocation projects, especially ones as large-scale as a
hospital, always come with planning challenges, which in turn come with different
strategies to reach a plan.
The hospital administration had a choice. They could simply move their current
operating procedures to the new location with a basic plan for relocation procedures.
They could bring in ”design thinking” folks to look at the needs of the different units,
gather some ethnographic data, and then lay out a plan with recommendations for the
relocation. Instead, Johns Hopkins took a different approach. They looked at the move as
an opportunity to redesign their current situation into a more desired future. The hospital
would upgrade its system as they upgraded its physical environment. Their change would
be systemic and not purely geographic.
Championed by a number of VPs, Johns Hopkins formed design teams comprised of
the hospital’s stakeholders. They defined stakeholders to mean anyone who could either
impact or be impacted by the decisions made in the design teams. This included not only
administration and management, but representatives from all of the hospital’s units,
including, for example, doctors, nurses, technicians, customer services representatives,
and custodial staff. Most importantly, the design teams included the end users: the
Before starting with the redesign of the subsystems, the design teams were given a
short course on systems thinking. The orientation created a shared understanding of how
the hospital operated as a system.
During the initial design meetings, information and data was also shared from
research that had been conducted prior to the design meetings. This research had been
done across different hospitals with the goal of finding out how patients thought about
and described the care they received. The trends showed that there was more to a hospital
stay than the level of care that was received. Patients who had successful procedures with
a high quality of medical care, in some instances, stated they would never return to that
hospital again. Examples of some of the reasons provided included: poor treatment by
diagnosticians; multiple room switches; unsanitary bathroom conditions; and long waits
for transportation for tests. It had nothing to do with the quality of the medical care
provided by the doctors. It had everything to do with how they perceived their experience
with the hospital (experience was defined as a systemic property of the hospital system
that is derived from the interaction of the essential components of the hospital system).
There were significant implications from these early steps in the design process;
they gave people who often never communicated before a common language and
common point of reflection. It also took the risk of blame and finger pointing off of the
Johns Hopkins staff and redirected the focus to patterns that were happening in the larger
environment of hospital care in general. From that point, even though there were initially
people with different experiences and frameworks at the table, there was a shared
understanding that any design created and implemented must meet two systems thinking
Identification and consideration of the essential parts of the system
Whatever the design, it would be decided by the amount of improvement to the
system as a whole, not just to individual parts or units
Once these criteria had been agreed upon, the group was charged with the next
If John Hopkins is a system, what does the hospital do to support
the PATIENT EXPERIENCE versus simply considering PATIENT CARE?
As doctors, janitors, technicians, and other hospital staff interacted with patients, the
interdependence of their contribution to the hospital as a whole began to emerge. This led
to what can only be described as an “A-HA!” moment. The participants realized that two
essential components of the hospital were traditionally overlooked, yet had a great impact
on the patient experience. Those two units were Patient Transportation (responsible for
moving patients from one part of a hospital to another) and Environmental Services
(responsible for cleaning services throughout the hospital).
Realizing that these two units are the essential components of the system had a
significant implication for the new design. The additional awareness that they directly
impacted both the hospital experience and the bottom line produced exciting designs. But
most importantly, all of these considerations resulted in a new approach to recruitment,
training, and compensation for employees within these departments.
Within Patient Transportation, an innovative and effective design resulted by
measuring how long it took to move patients between various locations in the hospital in
a manner that was pleasant and timely. Additionally, this consideration helped the design
team to determine where to place the wheel chairs in a logistically optimum place in the
new buildings. This will result in their ability to move patients quickly (e.g. diagnostics
will no longer stay idle waiting for patients). Furthermore, the design team was able to
improve the internal communication system. This will eliminate the additional work and
time lost by the nurses trying to contact patient transporters (information regarding
patient’s discharge by the attending physician will be shared with the patient
The same types of new designs occurred with the Environmental Services design
team. One solution improved the “bed turnaround” time (similar to plane turnaround in
the aviation industry, hospitals don’t generate funds unless there is a patient in the bed).
However, this improvement also means that patients won’t be left waiting in the hall for a
room at the new facility. What also emerged from this design team was a new awareness
that the Environmental Services unit does more than simply change over the rooms. They
also impact the overall quality of care in the hospital, specifically as it relates to
infectious diseases. This was an epiphany for everyone.
The approach Johns Hopkins took shows the instrumental role that taking a systemic
world view plays in design. It also highlights how important the design is to any
consideration of the system. By starting with an overview of systems thinking principles,
everyone was operating from a shared mindset. By sharing trends collected from the
larger health care environment they operated within, Johns Hopkins was able to develop a
shared context of the current situation. In any design process involving systems thinking,
such opportunities are designed based on the organization’s specific situation and tied to
the purpose of the design process.
Moreover, by bringing everyone to the design meetings together, stakeholders who
rarely had a voice were heard, and throughout the design process they expressed that this
was the first time they felt valued. There was a level power dynamic for the first time,
which was a monumental shift from the traditional hierarchy of respect with surgeons and
doctors at the top of the ladder. The perception of the employees in those two units
changed. Johns Hopkins had achieved its goal of a system redesign with the ownership of
those most impacted.
If Johns Hopkins had simply brought in designers to look at the problem, interview
various stakeholders, and design recommendations based on the compiled feedback, they
would not have achieved such a rich redesign of their system. They definitely would have
missed the opportunity for the interdepartmental perceptions of each other’s value to
change. There is a high probability they would have missed the impact of the two
essential parts identified in this process. The system would have likely been redesigned
based on the wrong assumptions of where improvement was needed. It was only by
having everyone in the same room, under the same shared context of hospital trends in
the larger environment, using the same systems language, throughout the entire process,
that the resulting design had the input and ownership of the entire system
In today’s business world Design Thinking and Systems Thinking are being considered
disjointedly. Specifically, the role of “design” in either approach is not transparent. For
all of us the challenge remains how the "DESIGN THINKING" community can learn
from the "SYSTEMS THINKING" community and vice versa.
We believe that SYSTEMS THINKING should be intentionally integrated with
DESIGN THINKING to enhance the chances of creating the RIGHT designs! We have
shown that Systems Thinking can help the designer to better understand the world around
them. As an example, in systems thinking design is considered the methodology for
planning because there is a belief that the future is subject to creation and design is the
creative process for this purpose. Furthermore, SYSTEMS principles can inform the
designers to achieve more SUSTAINABLE designs.
Design can be greatly enhanced if it improves the performance of the system as a
whole (even if you are redesigning the part). Design Thinking can also be enhanced by
purposefully considering the principle of unintended consequences, etc. Yet the most
valuable principle that Systems Thinking can add to Design Thinking is the need to bring
the whole system to the discussion from the beginning, not just in parts. The stakeholders
within the system must plan for themselves. If problem formulation is the first step in
design process, taking a systems mindset can help with "framing and especially with
re-framing" the problems.
We have proposed that the two approaches complement each other and each
incorporates components of the other implicitly. We believe it is possible – and necessary
- to create an approach that explicitly incorporates the strengths of each, thereby
addressing their gaps and increasing the chance of creating sustainable solutions to the
wicked problems facing organizations and society today.
Presented at the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
55th Annual Conference, "All Together Now: Working Across Disciplines,"
at University of Hull, Hull, UK, July 17-22, 2011. Reprinted by permission.
1. Ackoff, R.L. (1981). Creating the corporate future. New York: John Wiley and
2. Ackoff, R.L. (1981, February). The Art and Science of Mess Management.
Interfaces II. 11 (1), 20-26.
3. Ackoff RL. (1999). Re-Creating the corporation: a design of organizations for the
21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Ackoff, R.L. & Emery, F.E. (1972). On purposeful systems. Chicago:
5. Barabba, V.P. (1995). Meeting of the minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business
6. Baron, J. (2008). Thinking and deciding. (Chinese translation of 4th edition.)
Cambridge University Press (errata). (Original work published 1988, 1994, 2000)
7. Bausch. K.C. (2002, June). Roots and branches: a brief, picaresque, personal
history of systems theory. Wiley InterScience, 19(Syst.Res. pp 417-28). Retrieved
September 2009, from www.interscience.wiley.com.
8. Boland, R. & Collopy, F. (2004) Managing as design. Stanford, CA: Stanford
9. Brown, T. (2008, June). Design thinking. Harvard Business Review Paperback
10. Brown, T. (2009). Change by design. New York: Harper Collins.
11. Checkland, Peter.(1981). Systems thinking, systems practice. New York: John
Wiley & Sons.
12. Churchman, C. West. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Dell Publishing.
13. Christakis, A. & Baush, K. (2006). How people harness their collective wisdom
and power to construct the future in co-laboratories of democracy. North Carolina:
Information Age Publishing, Inc.
14. Collopy, F. Thinking about design thinking. Fast Company blog. Retrieved July 9,
15. Cross, N. (2006). Designerly ways of knowing. London: Springer-Verlag.
16. Flood, R. & Jackson, M. (1991). Creative problem solving. New York: John
Wiley & Sons.
17. Flowers, J. (1993). The power of chaos: A conversation with Margaret J.
Wheatley. Healthcare Forum Journal, (Sept/Oct), 48-55.
18. Follet, M.P., (1940). The psychology of control. In Metcalf, H.C. & Urwick, L.
(Eds). Dynamic administration: The collected papers of Mary Parker Follet (pp.
183-209). New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
19. Goetze, A. (2010). Creative Industries Convention 2010 Interview. Retrieved
May 20, 2010 from http://www.vimeo.com/9402566.
20. Holton, G. (1997). Albert Einstein: Historical and cultural perspectives. New
York: Dover Publications.
21. Jackson, M.C. (2003). Systems thinking: Creative holism for managers. University
of Hull, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
22. Johnson, L. (1997). From mechanistic to social systemic thinking: A digest of a
talk by Russell L. Ackoff. Innovations in Management Series. Cambridge, MA:
23. Mattesich, Richard. (1982, November). The systems approach: Its variety of
aspects. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 33(6).
24. McCullagh, K. (2010), Design thinking everywhere and nowhere: Reflections on
the big re-think. Core 77 Design Magazine and Resource, Retrieved, March 29,
2010, from http://is.gd/csz4Z.
25. Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
26. Olsen, Shirley A. (Ed.). (1982). Group planning and problem-solving methods in
engineering management. New York: Wiley Interscience.
27. Papanek, Victor. (1971). Design for the real world. New York: Pantheon Books.
28. Papanek, Victor. (1983). Design for human scale. New York: Van Nostrand.
29. Hawthorne, C. & Weiss, P. (Ed. Vols 1-6) and Burks, A.W. (vols.
7-8). (1931-1958) Collected Papers. 8 Vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP..
30. Rehm, Robert. (1999). People in charge: creating self managing workplaces.
Gloucestershire, UK: Hawthorn Press.
31. Shuman, S (Ed.) (2006). Creating a culture of collaboration: The International
Association of Facilitators handbook. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
32. Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive workplaces revisited. San Francisco, CA: