Solving wicked problems requires complex, long-term ways of thinking and Ivey’s MSc students are learning to do just that while tackling two real-life problems faced by the world’s largest food distributor.
For the Systems Thinking course taught by Mazi Raz, MBA ’05, PhD ’14, an assistant professor of strategy, the students helped Sysco Canada with two challenges – reducing food waste, and recruiting truck drivers and warehouse workers – using a systems thinking lens. Systems thinking uses a big-picture approach where you zoom out of a specific problem and consider how the challenge or potential solutions might impact the system as a whole.
Raz likened it to designing cities where urban planners must consider how all elements are interconnected instead of just letting cities grow on their own.
“What we typically teach in business school is to break up problems into smaller parts, but that doesn’t work well with complex problems,” he said. “Systems thinking requires you to slow down and look at a problem from multiple perspectives and at different times and stages so that the entire system is being considered.”
Preparing students to lead sustainable organizations
Taking a sustainable long-term approach to business issues is a key part of Ivey’s programming. Through the Ivey Next strategy, Ivey aspires to prepare future leaders to address three critical issues: sustainability, the evolution of work, and Canada’s place in the world.
This also aligns with Sysco’s ‘Recipe for Sustainability' program to develop the next generation of sustainability leaders. As part of this program, Sysco collaborates with select universities to explore innovation and address sustainability challenges faced by the foodservice industry. This gives students hands-on experience in building a more sustainable organization, society, and ecology.
For the project, students were divided into teams with one group working on the food waste problem and the other exploring the workforce issues. The student teams had multiple Zoom calls with Sysco Canada representatives to gather information and feedback before presenting their ideas to the company on March 22.
Getting to the root of problems
For MSc student Sandra Borowski, learning to apply systems thinking has shifted her mindset when it comes to complex problems.
“It helps you to see that the problem is not isolated – to understand the interdependencies and intricacies of the problem as a whole and where it lies in the system. It’s taking an ecocentric rather than an egocentric approach because the problems are seen as an ecology of problems and a system problem affects different people and different organizations in different ways,” she said. “By seeing the ecology of problems, we’re able to create better solutions that will have a more profound change because we’re able to get closer to the root.”
Her team looked at the food waste issue and the systems lens helped the students to see that some of their initial solutions might create other problems within the system. For instance, they considered proposing new food packaging to protect the produce, but realized it would need to be environmentally friendly and might cost more, which would produce an offshoot negative impact.
“Then we’re just creating this domino effect of environmental and financial problems in hopes of trying to fix the food waste problem. You’re in a loop, and that’s what systems are about – understanding the interdependencies of everything and everyone,” she said.
Borowski said this way of thinking will help the students, as future leaders, to address the many wicked problems that must not be reduced to a singular root cause.
“As a future leader, systems thinking is not just another tool or a systematic way of addressing these problems, but rather a new way of thinking that allows us to see the bigger picture, not just restricting ourselves to a singular solution,” she said.
You need to be able to address complex problems using out-of-the-box thinking because they are out-of-the box problems themselves.”
– Sandra Borowski
Focus on sustainable solutions
Fellow MSc student Kyle Edmonds echoed her sentiments. While tackling recruiting and retention for critical frontline roles, his team had to consider that Sysco wasn’t the only company competing for workers and ensure their proposed solution would be sustainable. A fishing simulation in class helped the students to see the need to allow for regeneration of resources rather than depleting them through a specific solution, especially upon learning that Sysco was growing its employee base.
His group proposed that Sysco consider offering a subsidized truck driver training program for students straight out of high school as well as giving trainees and employees the option to mortgage their trucks with financial support from Sysco. Edmonds said the goal was to help shorten the regeneration time of the workers in this profession while also giving them a sense of ownership to fuel their intrinsic motivations.
Overall, he said he learned that a systems thinking approach requires individuals to analyze problems from multiple angles and perspectives, with an open mind, and considering the interconnectedness of various elements within a system. Edmonds said this entails zooming in and out of the problem, examining it from different levels of detail, and looking left and right at factors such as time as a context (the weight of the past, push of the present, or pull of the future) and the various actors and institutions involved.
Addressing the underlying issues
“This helped me gain a comprehensive understanding of the system's underlying dynamics and goals. Solutions that we proposed initially might have only addressed the surface-level symptoms of a problem, rather than addressing the root causes. This may result in the creation of new problems or the exacerbation of existing ones in the long run,” he said.
It is crucial to identify and address underlying issues that might affect the system in the future. By doing so, individuals can identify sustainable solutions that benefit the entire system, rather than creating additional problems down the line.”
Motivating change by appealing to values
Ajay Gandhi’s team also looked at the employee turnover issue. He said the systems thinking approach helped the team to consider how Canada’s work culture has been changing over time and why people may not work as much in certain industries as others.
“It’s important to understand the mental models – the underlying assumptions and beliefs that people in the system have about the system and about the work they’re doing. This can help us to understand what their biases are in terms of what change they think is possible or impossible and what they are receptive to,” he said. “You have to integrate solutions that show care for people’s intrinsic values.”
His team proposed a hiring model that embraces short-term employment periods so that workers have the flexibility to move up within the company or shift laterally to another job.
Gandhi said getting to meet with Sysco reps and work on a solution that the company might actually implement helped the students to feel emotionally invested in their work.
“Often when you’re given a case to work on, you can’t put faces to it. It was helpful to have an emotional connection to the problem,” he said.
Feedback from Sysco Canada
Cody Koester, VP, Field Finance, Sysco Canada, attended the presentations and shared that Sysco was excited to work with the students to help give them new perspective on solving real world issues.
"The value that we gained from students thinking critically about these challenges has been phenomenal. The fresh ideas that have come from this course will be beneficial for us as a company,” he said.
Meaghan Beck, Director, Corporate Social Responsibility, Sysco Canada, said that sustainability requires collaboration and a thorough systems thinking lens to innovate responsibly for meaningful emissions reduction and the project with Ivey helped to achieve that.
"Working together with Ivey students has been invaluable to gain new insights and solutions for tackling complex sustainability issues facing the food industry. Thank you to Mazi [Raz] and students for your inspiring and thought-provoking studies," she said.