The Four Stages of Lean Systems Thinking

Jim Benson
Everything is a System.

No matter who you are or what you do, you create systems and live in the systems of others every day. But, for some reason, we’re never actually taught Lean systems thinking. We think it is natural, that we just sort of “get it.”
Personally, we are most often governed by cognitive biases...over 250 documented “short cuts” our brains take to interpret and respond to the world around us. They, themselves, are systems and they respond to stimuli in our world (which are generated by, you guessed it, more systems).

It’s a soup, but it’s a soup of patterns.  

Systems are Our Responsibility

The key to Lean systems thinking is to be able to see these patterns and their indicators, interactions, and implications. 

From there, we need to be able to share what we see with others so that we can recognize the same patterns, react in similar ways, and respond appropriately.

Once we have a shared understanding of the system and our responses, we can build better systems by creating intentional systems that support clarity, creativity, and completion. 

Creating a system is not the end, once it is built, we must power the system by making sure we’ve created a community that will be a part of, attend to, learn from, and improve our system. 

Let’s flesh this out a little:

The Four Stages of Lean Systems Thinking

Stage One: See the System

With Lean systems thinking, our first step is to make our system visible. Initially being able to visualize your system allows a rapid understanding of how your system operates. Seeing the system is important. We need to see the interactions, the areas where there are problems, the way that information or work or intention flows. We need to see where people’s lives are improved and where they are harmed by your system. Lean systems thinking allows us to see where our current system divides the team, creating frustration and inefficiency.

Stage Two: Share the System

The second stage of Lean systems thinking comes down to sharing the ownership of the system. Once a previously “invisible” system is made visible, it becomes tameable, more useful, and improvable--but only if you share it. The system foists expectations on us, we (as a group) need to begin to have some expectations of the system. Your team sees work as it is actually happening on the same visualization. The story becomes shared, responses to planned or unplanned events become less chaotic. With Lean systems thinking, the team can find the places where current frustrations are self-inflicted wounds fix them. Meetings will quickly cease to be frustrating arguments or dull information sessions, and will become working sessions. In this stage, we truly begin to work together.

Stage Three: Build the System

It might seem strange to have “Build” be the third stage of a four-stage system, but almost every system you will seek to improve will already exist. Build here can be thought of as any renovation project. The system requires maintenance, yes, but also reconfiguration or additions. Build, here is intentionally grandiose. We want to respect the fact that there will be considerable ongoing work in the husbandry of our system and that the denial of those duties is what causes most systemic problems. We need to pay attention.

Stage Four: Power the System

After we have begun a regular practice of building our system, we seek to improve the culture that both drives and is driven by our system. By adopting Lean systems thinking, we seek out ways to have better meetings, we continuously improve our professional capabilities, we look for ways to improve work-life, increase the fidelity of our conversations with customers, and, in general, tweak our system so that it not only runs better, but is enjoyable to work in. 

Does this all seem like theory?

Maybe it is. What I can tell you is this. After 30 years of working in many industries, I can tell you that almost every problem a team finds themselves in is solvable and usually a self-inflicted wound. Missed deadlines, quality problems, high turnover, budget overruns, angry customers, you name it… they are all nearly always caused by the team not understanding how they work and not being able to communicate effectively with stakeholders.

The existing tools to engage these four stages are myriad and you can create your own. There is no one way to engage Lean systems thinking. No one holds the patent on it. 

Valuing the need for these stages cannot be overstated. If you are not paying attention to them, you are not doing your job. 

These four stages are the foundation for our Lean Agile Visual Management Certification.