Systems Thinking in Engineering [Visual Explainer]

What is Systems Thinking in Engineering?

Systems thinking is a versatile approach that can be applied to just about any discipline. In engineering, it’s about understanding how the components of a system interact with each other and identifying points to ensure parts work together seamlessly.

The systems thinking approach’s principles in engineering:

Holistic viewpoint

Consider the entire system, understanding how it works as a whole, how its components interact, and how changes or issues affect the system in its entirety.


Consider how different components interact.

Feedback Loops

Identify and understand feedback loops for maintaining stability and improving system performance.

Dynamic Nature

Consider that systems are dynamic and evolve over time, which must be accounted for in any physical or virtual system.


Avoid simplistic cause-effect thinking, seeking to better understand potential unintended consequences of design choices and engineering changes.

Leverage Points

Identify quick wins where small changes could have a big positive impact to the entire system.


Emphasize integrating subsystems and components to ensure parts and components work as seamlessly as possible.

Continuous Improvement

Leverage processes where systems are continuously tested, evaluated, and improved iteratively.


Consider long-term impacts and sustainability of engineering choices to design systems that are efficient, scalable and environmentally friendly for the entire system lifecycle.

Notable Moments in Systems Thinking History

  • 1930s: Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy formulates General Systems Theory, laying the groundwork for systems thinking years later.
  • 1948: American mathematician and computer scientist Norbert Wiener publishes Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, influencing what would become systems thinking.
  • 1940s: WWII drives a system approach due to the complexity of military projects.
  • 1950s-70s: The Space Race between the United States and the former Soviet Union to master spaceflight necessitates comprehensive system design and system integration.
  • 1970s-80s: Technology systems grow quickly in complexity, requiring a systems approach in engineering at scale across sectors. During this time, systems thinking becomes formalized as universities begin offering courses on it.
  • 1990s-2000s: Proliferation of computer-aided systems engineering tools become increasingly advanced as the systems approach becomes more tightly integrated with other disciplines.

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