About Systems Thinking

John M. GraceBy John M. Grace
Vice President of Engineering and Technology
ArvinMeritor, Inc.
December 12, 2002

Systems thinking is cool because it blends hard and soft sciences, involves the psychology of working together, and most importantly, is integral to helping me understand others and myself. Systems thinking allows details to be extracted from the whole, then put back in a way that enables us to see and understand the entire picture in new, more expanded ways.

With a systems approach, the more you understand where someone is coming from, the more details you will see. My wife and I, as docents at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, study the backgrounds of various painters so we can understand them better and transfer that knowledge to museum visitors. Through this volunteer work, I’ve learned that art and business can truly inform each other.

Abstract expressionist Franz Kline, for example, often painted heavy black slashes on a white background, as he did in “Painting Number 2.” If you look into his life, you’ll learn that he came from western Pennsylvania. And if you look further, you’d discover that the area has many bridges spanning several valleys. Knowing this, you can start to see that in some instances the bridge structure is represented in an abstract sense by the black slashes. You can think of the bridge structure as an organizing system to help in your understanding of some of Kline’s art. I doubt you would make these associations if you didn’t take a systems approach.

There’s a similar theme in my work at Arvin Meritor, where we focus on working with people in a way that helps them see things they hadn’t seen before while bridging what they already know. We will be holding a leadership conference that will cover, among other things, our technical road-mapping process. In this discussion, we will show how bridging hard science with the psychology of working together can help us see and understand future product systems opportunities more directly. These opportunities, for satisfying various functional needs, will be the starting point for our future product offerings. From our perspective, exploring our future technical issues in a systems context gives us a significant advantage in the marketplace.

Systems thinking is endlessly fascinating because it’s applicable to virtually anything, from art to the rollover bar on a Porsche. Issues that are not readily transparent need to surface in order to expand knowledge and redefine functionality. With the rollover bar on a Porsche, it would require using hydroforming to eliminate some parts and processes used in past designs. This enables a convoluted shape to be created that optimizes performance and minimizes processes and waste.

We can also apply systems thinking to springs and shock absorbers. If we just continued to bring together parts in the old way, we wouldn’t be progressing. But looking at them as a system and integrating them in new ways add value and functionality. In addition, systems thinking brings new opportunities for developing overall business strategy. Using a technology roadmap enables us to move back and forth between the small steps taken to produce a product to the bird’s-eye view of the individual business units as a whole system. We can use this to understand how to integrate our systems at various levels.

This also offers tremendous potential for supply chain improvement. In this area, Dan Whitney (Senior Research Scientist, MIT’s Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development) has guided us in determining what we can control in-house, what to outsource, and where we might need to acquire a new line of business, such as a steering manufacturing company.

We’re now working on a pilot to help us look at change agency at Arvin-Meritor, specifically with our SDM students. Jan Klein (Senior Lecturer, Sloan School of Management) is our focal point for this project. We are using her work at Boeing, Intel, Visteon, and MIT to examine SDMers as global change agents. This will be a microcosmic view that helps us understand how we perceive changes agents in general, and how we can more effectively integrate not only our SDMs, but also our MBAs back into the workplace when they return from their studies.

We view MIT as the source of Arvin-Meritor’s system engineering education and are already seeing success in our first grads. They are thinking, acting, and managing differently. For example, one of the people managing the development of a plasmatron to help reduce emissions problems is an SDM alum who is managing 20 engineers worldwide. He and another SDMer are also working as change agents who see the plasmatron systemically, then expose our engineers to this new way of thinking.

Arvin-Meritor is also doing some work with the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. It’s a college that specializes in design in the artistic sense. We are trying to marry art with our roof business to get some cross cultural-stimulation.

From the work I do at both Arvin-Meritor and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I’ve realized that the technical skill required to create great art — or to create great working conditions — ultimately succeeds because it conveys a sense of humanity as well. It enables me to see things I haven’t seen before, helps me to understand myself and others better, and hopefully allows me to give back by transferring that knowledge to our museum visitors and my co-workers.

(With Lois Slavin, ESD Communications Director)