It is not the parts you should look at, but their interactions. Observing the parts will not reveal the pattern they create together and can cause you to make faulty assumptions about the performance of the whole. You may also be tempted to influence the parts in ways that isn't helpful when you don't consider the total effect of your influence.
Observing and trying to understand the elements as isolated units is suboptimal if you want to manage the system that they are a part of.
The understanding of what it means to be a system is one of the four pillars of William Deming's System of profound knowledge, a set of insights regarding management in complex environments that even though being more than 30 years old has become increasingly important in the age of digitalization, disruptive innovation, and organizational agility.
Deming made a point by addressing top management and trying to get them to understand the importance of systems thinking. He realized that if the top management didn't get it, they would never be able to create an environment where the performance of the whole was improved. Everyone would be stuck in their compartments making sub optimizations to the detriment of all. And while it is still true that a top management who lacks understanding of system behavior will ruin it, organizational agility also demands that that every person in the collaboration share these insights.
It seems like the human mind has some difficulty grasping aspects of systems behavior. We tend to believe that the outcome directly reflects the behavior of the parts, or the intentions of the people acting in the system. Instead it is perfectly possible and actually quite common that smart and kind people cooperate in ways that makes the system become like it was run by an evil super genius or an infinitely stupid autocrat. We assume that low performance of the system is a function of low performance of its parts and fail to understand why the system actually performs worse when we force the people in it to work harder.
I believe that it is of utmost importance that we all improve in our systems thinking ability, especially if we are in a position where we design performance metrics or tries to govern system behavior. In my work helping organizations to increase their agility I have found that all four parts of doctor Deming's system of profound knowledge are essential for everyone, and that systems thinking is one of the hardest things to teach and learn.
As of now I am creating a course module that will cover the basics. The thing that I find being the most difficult is dividing the insights in easily digestible chunks. It kind of goes with the subject that understanding the parts of it doesn't necessarily help when understanding the whole!
I am really interested in what you think about this. What questions regarding systems thinking would you be interested in? What is it that you feel is the most difficult things to understand about the subject? I would very much appreciate if you would take the time to reflect a bit about that and maybe share some of your thoughts with me.