Sustaining Systems Thinking in Engineering Teams

Engineering leaders are increasingly concerned about sustaining engineering competency and experience as the baby boomer generation begins to retire taking with it a tremendous volume of knowledge and experience. Complex system based industries such as aerospace and defence, automotive, and shipbuilding are particularly susceptible to the loss of systems engineering competencies gained from a long sequence of increasingly advanced projects delivered between the 1960s to the present day.

A PhD thesis by Caroline Lamb Collaborative Systems Thinking: An exploration of the mechanisms enabling team systems thinking explored how engineering teams approach systems thinking in aerospace systems development.  Motivated by the greying of aerospace engineers in America this study provides a very comprehensive view of how systems thinking can be sustained in the long run following a loss of corporate knowledge (ie. from baby boomer retirements, corporate restructuring, etc).

Although specific to aerospace this research provides some very useful generalized approaches to establish, sustain, and improve engineering teams engaged in complex systems development. This research complements views on teamwork, innovation, and creativity when applied to complex systems.

Collaborative Systems Thinking

Lamb defined collaborative systems thinking as ‘big picture‘ thinking and a necessary skill for complex systems design coupling the analytical side of engineering design with the creative side of engineering design that ensures the final product delivers the desired functionality. In this research the term ‘collaborative systems thinking’ is used to differentiate between systems thinking within teams and systems thinking performed by individual engineers. This differentiation is useful in a generalized context where most would agree today that teamwork is the favoured organizational effectiveness work model.

Generalized Traits of Collaborative Systems Thinking Teams

Lamb reports that generalized traits of collaborative systems thinking teams. Collaborative systems thinking teams:

  1. Engage in more consensus decision making.
  2. Require a team structure with three categories of membership: systems leadership (strong systems thinkers who balance technical and social interactions of the team); technical translators (act as interface between system leadership and functional experts); and functional experts (bring specialized technical knowledge to the team).
  3. Prefer communication by real-time group interactions.
  4. Possess team members who have a higher number of past and concurrent (optimal maximum of three) project experience.
  5. Prefer supportive team environment with enablers of trust, shared understanding of team purpose, and engaging in good discussions that stimulate good ideas.
  6. Have more creative work environments with high decision freedom.
  7. Require both technical and social leadership.
  8. Conceptual design teams are more likely to engage in collaborative systems thinking.

Traits that were not found to have a strong influence on collaborative systems thinking included: team size, collocation, customer base (ie. military vs commercial), measures of technical process use or tailoring, and individual systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Heuristics

Lamb captured a number of heuristics that describe collaborative systems thinking team behaviours. Collaborate systems thinking teams:

  1. Concentrate on the system: “Collaborative systems thinking teams concentrate on the system, on finding an elegant solution. Requirements are secondary to that design. Teams engage in systems thinking when the individuals are genuinely interested and engaged in the task. Fundamentally, the solution comes not when we are concentrating on the constraints, but when we become engrossed with the problems at hand.”
  2. Communicate effectively for the context: “Clear communication is critical to collaborative systems thinking. Teams tend to over use email and other IT tools. Sometimes you just need to walk around and speak with others. After all, you can’t delete a walk-in.”
  3. Ask lots of questions: “The asking and answering of questions brings both parties to new realizations. It helps teams and individuals identify built-in assumptions and move away from what we’ve always done. A team needs the leader to ask the right questions; an individual who is curious, imaginative, knowledgeable, and can help others look at the problem from outside of the box.”
  4. Good process execution needs both standardization and innovation: “Many people are comfortable following guidelines and rules, but process can become brittle. Teams require a balance of individuals that follow the letter of the law and individuals who follow the ‘spirit’ of rules; who reframe problems to get around rules. This is how we innovate and improve.”

  5. Both experience and analysis are important: “In a team setting there must be a balance between experience and analysis. Experience feeds the team’s intuition and frames how each new problem is faced. However, in innovative situations intuition can be a liability, and teams must use tools to find new knowledge and overcome the inertia of past experience.”

  6. History tends to repeat itself: “Engineering mistakes repeat every 7-10 years. This is the time it takes for critical people to rotate off a program and for important knowledge to be lost and rediscovered through failure. Successful programs have a line of succession: a continuity of knowledge through awareness of the past, present, and future. When this continuity is broken is when teams are doomed to repeat failures of the past.”

  7. Engineers are unique individuals: “Team members, especially the smart and innovative, come with ‘warts.’ Team leaders cannot tolerate disruptive behavior, but need to treat each person individually to get their best work and to help them become better engineers and team members.”


This research provides useful guidelines to assist engineering leaders create the best environment for engineering teams involved in the ‘fuzzy front end’ of product development where uncertainty is high. The research is perhaps less relevant to later execution engineering work.

The research also provides some key insight into team structure and make-up. To sustain systems thinking firms should keep teams formed over the long term to build experience even though individuals may leave or join the group and the team may be assigned to new projects.  The research suggests that to sustain systems thinking a great deal of attention needs to be paid to developing engineering leaders with the combination of technical and social skills to deliver integrated systems.

Social media has some interesting implications on future team based engineering particular where it enables real-time communication if team members are not co-located.

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