SDM holds conference on systems thinking for contemporary challenges

By Kathryn M. O’Neill
October 30, 2008

MIT Sloan Dean David C. Schmittlein opened the Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges conference by observing, “One of the great things about systems thinking is that it’s not limited to one industry.”

The 13 presentations that followed bore him out, as speakers from industry and academia applied systems thinking to everything from small software startups to Fortune 500 companies to NASA. Sponsored annually by the System Design and Management (SDM) program and organized by SDM alumni, the conference drew more than 230 attendees to MIT on October 23–24.

Professor Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD), led off by laying the academic foundations of systems thinking. “There are problems for which technical approaches are fine,” he said, but challenges as large and complex as crumbling infrastructure and global climate change require new approaches. “The answer to how to run the U.S. health-care system is not 10.72.”

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Peter Senge illustrated this point by linking environmental problems to a failure of systems thinking. “We’re doing things all the time that have significant long-term consequences that we pretty much ignore,” he said. Thinking about whole systems—and taking our cue from natural cycles, which have zero waste—can save companies money, create opportunities and improve the environment.

Olivier de Weck, associate director of ESD and MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics (aero/astro) and engineering systems, picked up on the theme of natural order, keying his talk to the work of Charles Darwin. Because manmade systems are subject to so much uncertainty, its important to design systems to be evolvable, de Weck said. One example of evolvable design was explored by Annalisa L. Weigel, the Jerome C. Hunsacker assistant professor of aero/astro and engineering systems at MIT, who discussed modular spacecraft design.

Several talks, including one by Paul Murray, director of environmental safety and sustainability at Herman Miller, showed the practical application of systems thinking. By setting goals of zero waste, building green, and designing for disassembly, Herman Miller has saved millions through landfill avoidance, lower utility bills and recycling. “The whole concept that green costs more is an old paradigm. That’s been shattered,” Murray said.

The same is true for safety, according to Nancy Leveson, MIT professor of aero/astro and engineering systems. “Everybody thinks safety costs—that accidents are just the cost of doing business. Absolutely untrue,” Leveson said. Designers need to build in safety from the start—moving from preventing failure to enforcing safety constraints.

Pat Hale, director of SDM’s Fellows Program, challenged attendees to weave systems thinking into their everyday lives. “You can start some very interesting conversations by challenging reductionist theory,” he said.

Chances are that Lee Ng has had some of those conversations. A PhD graduate of MIT, Ng is a business director in the New Business Creation group at Agilent Technologies. “I know it’s an oxymoron—managing innovation,” she said, but that’s her job. Ng offered some key lessons: Think about using the prototype not just to answer questions but to ask them. Keep in mind that a buyer might want to use your product differently than you expected. And, remember that to get a return on investment, you have to take risks.

Girish Kumar Navani, cofounder and CEO of eClinicalWorks, mapped out how his software company grew 6,000 percent in five years by bringing systems thinking to health-care IT. And, the conference concluded with a talk by Dharmesh Shah, MIT Sloan Fellow ’06, who founded HubSpot. Agility makes for a sustainable business, he said. “She who wins is she who experiments more successfully.”

The conference also featured talks by Valerie Casey of IDEO, who discussed sustainability and unintended consequences; Kieran Draper of Capgemini, whose spoke on bridging the gap between IT and business; and John deVadoss of Microsoft, who talked about the software-as-service trend.

Alyson Scherer, SDM ’07, and Shawn Quinn, SDM ’06, moderated the event, which was co-sponsored by MITRE, John Deere, the Instrumentation Laboratory, American Industrial Partners, and United Technologies, with SDM.

Next year’s conference on systems thinking will be held on October 22-23, 2009. Save the date!