Monday, March 26, 2012

Systems Thinking and the Benefits of Thinking Holistically About Tea and Everything

This post is about systems thinking, which is related to thinking holistically. Wikipedia has an extensive article about systems thinking; it's a useful article, but is a bit rough around the edges. Here I want to explain, in the context of the world of tea, what systems thinking is, and how it can benefit you.

An illustration of systems:

A system, generally defined, is a combination of interacting components which form a cohesive whole with interesting properties of its own.

Pictured here are four systems: M51: Cosmic Whirlpool, two colliding galaxies, some tea gardens in Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India, a tea shop in Kunming, Yunnan, China, and a diagram of a typical plant cell (which could easily be the cell of a tea plant). These pictures illustrate that systems can exist at vastly different spatial scales, from the cosmic to the microscopic, and that they can be natural or can involve human civilization.

Systems are complex, and often exhibit bizarre, interesting, and beautiful phenomena, which is what leads people to describe them at times as complex systems.

What exactly is a system?

A system is more than just a collection of things. If you collect a bunch of loose teas and throw them in your cupboard, you have a tea collection, not a system. A system is something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You might have a system of organizing your tea, but in this case, the system lies in your thoughts and practices, not the teas themselves.

This picture, titled "Tea in the Garden" by Albert Chevallier Tayler, shows a group of people gathered for tea. Groups of people are examples of systems.

Have you ever noticed that when a group of people gets together, the group takes on characteristics that the individuals in the group do not have alone? In some cases, a group might be much more effective at solving problems or getting work done than the individuals alone, or perhaps a quirky and fun sort of humor comes out, but in other cases, conflicts arise that did not exist when people were just operating as individuals. These new properties of the group are one of the key features of complex systems. Any group of interacting people forms a system: families, communities, classes in school, businesses and organization, casual social circles, political groups.

Systems are ubiquitous in biology and ecology. Individual biological cells are systems, as they have many individual parts that work together in complex ways. Within the human body, there are many systems: the circulatory system, the digestive system, the brain and nervous system. A person, or any life form, is also a system.

Cities, like one of my favorite cities pictured here, are systems.

Systems also abound in business: each individual business is a system, and the economy of a town, city, or region is itself a system. Furthermore, businesses operate within and are constrained by systems, including the economic system of society as a whole, as well as local and national political systems, and the system of culture in society, as well as local and regional subcultures.

Systems thinking vs. mechanical or linear thinking:

I find that systems thinking is best described by contrasting it with other types of thinking, which I like to call mechanical thinking or linear thinking. Mechanical thinking treats things as machines, and tends to use reductionist reasoning (understanding something by taking it apart or looking at the pieces). This type of thinking is highly logical, and is often very good at solving problems that are clearly stated.

Mechanical thinking has its place; without engineering, which is a discipline founded mostly on linear thinking, we would not have the complex buildings or technology that many of us take for granted in our modern world. And straightforward, linear thinking is also necessary in many aspects of life, and business. But this way of thinking can be severely limiting when dealing with systems when we rely on it exclusively.

Examples demonstrating the misapplication of mechanical thinking:

  • This tea, which tasted great yesterday, tastes bad today. I must have steeped it too long, or used water which was too hot.

  • I want to make more money through my tea website. I need to get more visitors to my site, to increase the conversion rate (rate of making a sale) for visitors, or to increase the amount of tea purchased per sale.

  • My tea growing operation (or anything-growing operation) is struggling to make ends meet. I need to find some way to cut my costs, or increase the yield per acre.

These misuses of mechanical thinking can lead from relatively unimportant consequences, like a person puzzling for no good reason at why they can't brew their tea properly, to more serious ones, like an online tea company owner making some bad business decisions, to catastrophic ones, such as agribusiness engaging in farming practices that lay off workers and destroy the environment.

One particularly straightforward example of the failure of linear thinking, in engineering, is explained in an article I wrote about flood prevention. An individual property owner can protect themselves from some short-term flooding damage by making changes to their property to run water off their property as quickly as possible. But, collectively, if everyone in a region follows these practices, catastrophic flooding will become a much bigger problem. The optimal solution for a region as a whole is for each property owner to minimize the runoff from their property.

Much of the flooding that happens in the U.S. is preventable, as it is caused by land-use practices that speed the runoff of water.

There are numerous similar issues in tea production, and in agriculture in general. I don't have any experience with tea cultivation, but I have a lot of experience with small-scale gardening, and I have researched the agricultural system in the U.S. a lot. Here in the U.S., mechanistic thinking has resulted in a move towards monoculture crops, cultivated by chemically-intensive farming methods...fewer people are involved in farming, the farming happens in ways that are damaging to the environment, and the produced food is of much lower quality.

Systems thinking, or holistic thinking, can lead us out of these sorts of binds. Thinking holistically is an essential part of sustainability. Systems thinking does not replace or contradict linear thinking, it just steps back and looks at the big picture in addition to the details. Often, whereas linear thinking is good at answering questions that are correctly posed, systems thinking is good at evaluating whether we are asking the right question, or coming up with creative solutions.

Examples of systems thinking in these same cases:

  • This tea, which tasted great yesterday, tastes bad today. Maybe I steeped it too long or used water which was too hot, or maybe I'm perceiving it differently because I'm in a bad mood today, or because I ate different food before drinking it.

  • I want to make more money through my tea website. I could try reaching a new audience, try improving the experience people have on the site, or try carrying unique offerings which will make my company stand out.

  • My tea growing operation is struggling to make ends meet. Maybe by developing new cultivars, pioneering new ecologically-friendly farming methods, I can attract attention and sell the teas for a higher price. Maybe by banding together with other tea producers, we can solve problems that we cannot overcome on our own. Maybe we can find ways to eliminate middlemen and more directly access the higher profit-margins historically available in Western markets. Maybe we can influence local or national government policies and regulations in ways that reshape the business environment in ways that are better both for me and for my community.

The latter approach is highlighted in the approach Kenya has been taking to tea cultivation. RateTea's page on Kenya explains this in more depth. The approach being taken in Kenya does focus on bottom-line factors like cost and yield-per-acre, but it also seeks, unlike agriculture policies in the U.S., to reduce costs through reducing energy and chemical inputs, and to create cultivars with a broad range of adaptability in the face of global climate change, which poses a particular risk to farming in Kenya, where much of the country is too arid for normal western-style agriculture. Another example, which I discovered through a post by Jackie on the Tea Trade forums, from a different part of the world, is happening in India, where small tea growers are creating their own brand of tea, an idea that came up in self-help groups of small tea growers and tea factories. The people involved in this movement have also worked to encourage the Tea Board of India to get on board with some of these initiatives, and they seem to be having some success.

What do you think?

Do you think about systems and systems thinking? Do you find systems thinking helpful in your life and/or in your business?


  1. Talking about system thinking... when I first opened my web store and asked a few friends for review, a friend took a quick look and said, "you don't have enough products for people who want *expensive* tea..." It didn't sound very logic, but I knew exactly what he meant and the logic behind it. There is system thinking, and there are different thinking systems :-p

    1. Hmm...I'm curious about what the person was going for when they were talking about people who want "expensive" tea.

      I know that I always look at the price, and I think a lot in terms of value, but I do think that some people are roped in by the idea that more expensive = better quality, or the idea that it's worthwhile to spend a lot of money on something just as a status symbol.

    2. Love it. I studied Mathematical Biology so am forever thinking about systems and explaining systems to people!

  2. Nice post, Alex. Several authors have recently pointed out that Systems Thinking isn't more productive simply because it's difficult. There also appears to be an issue of deflation of the term to mean little more than systems-consciousness.

    "If systems thinking had been successful in gaining a foothold in management education over the last half of the 20th century, there would be no manage by designing movement, or calls for integrative or design thinking." (

    My thoughts on it here:

    1. I don't think systems thinking is particularly difficult, to be honest. It comes very naturally for me.

      I also think that systems thinking isn't a particularly new or radical idea--rather, it's just common sense. I think that Western culture limited itself. But my experience with successful business people, managers, teachers, and anyone who works with large groups of people, is that the best examples of these people are all systems thinkers.

      If you don't think holistically, and you're running an organization or business, it's just a matter of time before it gets run into the ground, because you can't succeed at something complex if you're just focused on the small details or mechanics of operations. Those sorts of skills work in certain specialized careers, but I think holistic thinking and systems thinking are nearly universal. It's not a fringe idea.