Tyson Titensor's Reviews > Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
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bookshelves: lean-systems-management

TLDR of my review: Reading this book doesn't make one an expert on complex systems. In fact it probably makes one dangerously hubristic when it comes to systems thinking. It's a decent primer but it only scratches the surface. And it is flawed in a number of ways.


I first became interested in Systems Thinking a little over 5 years ago and this book was one that I used to kick start my study. It was interesting re-read it after a few years as I now have a much more complex view on systems thinking and thus stronger opinions about this book.

Perhaps one day I will write a more cohesive and thorough review, but for now, here are some random thoughts:

+Fundamental friction between trying to make systems understandable and repeatedly clarifying that complex systems are unpredictable.

+The book is at it's best when it is discussing the inherent challenge of systems modeling as well as typical mistakes made by systems modelers.

+While Meadows presents some nice examples of simplified systems as a way of presenting concepts the author ultimately does her readers a disservice by making inferences from those those models to make points about topics as diverse as macroeconomics, and foreign policy. At best her simplistic models would be useful to understand a relatively small, relatively un-complex system. Many of the huge global systems she is trying to comment on are uber-complicated (arguably too complicated to be modeled by even the most cutting edge experts in the world), and certainly inappropriate for a primer. Perhaps dangerously inappropriate as it could give one a false sense that by understanding these very basic systems models they can now understand macroeconomics.

+The frequent political soap-boxes detract from the book's credibility as impartial and serious. In places it feels like she is using her systems framework to justify her pre-existing beliefs. (If all you have is a hammer....)

+I think the power of incremental, continuous, small changes to a system (e.g. Lean) is one of the most important tools at our disposal to change systems. This important concept is largely overlooked in the book.

+Another very powerful concept overlooked in the book is the idea of Black Swans (in Meadows' defense this is a relatively new idea that wasn't really around when she wrote this book). I think some of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's books are arguably more valuable mental models for living in a world of complex systems.

+Lack of discussion regarding the impact of time scales. If we pull a lever in a complex system today, it's likely we can assess what it will do tomorrow, but seeing far into the future of a system is nearly impossible.

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Reading Progress

April 3, 2011 – Shelved
March 11, 2016 – Shelved as: lean-systems-management
Started Reading
October 11, 2016 – Finished Reading

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Zhongyi Fan you should rate it one or two stars

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