The System Improvement Process (SIP)


Three main tools diagram The System Improvement Process was developed from scratch to solve difficult social problems, especially the sustainability problem. The process provides problem solvers with a "fill in the blanks" framework that makes work much more focused and efficient.

A FerrariHaving a process that fits the problem is like moving from a horse and buggy to a car. The better the process, the faster the car. SIP is so refined it's the Ferrari of processes for this type of problem... all so you can become a Ferrarista. Try SIP out. Slide in behind the wheel. Take it for a drive... which is exactly what cruising through this website will do for you.

Root cause analysis is the first tool in our toolkit. The second tool is process driven problem solving, for which we have developed SIP. SIP is a wrapper for root cause analysis, so that root cause analysis can be more easily applied to difficult social problems. SIP uses model based analysis to perform the analysis, which is the third tool.

Putting all three tools together gives you all the horsepower you need to zip around curves, climb the tallest hills without slowing down, and chase your dreams all the way to problem solution. Say goodbye to your horse and buggy, which is your present problem solving process, and say Buon giorno! and Ciao! to the System Improvement Process, the Ferrari of problem solving frameworks for impossible-to-solve, so-difficult-I'm-going-nuts social system problems.


Most people have great difficulty determining what matters and what doesn't when solving a problem in an area they are unfamiliar with. How can you separate the wheat from the chaff? How can you find the 20% so you can apply the 80-20 rule? If you can't determine what matters and study that, then you can't solve the problem.

SIP is a guiding framework. It asks three strategic questions:

1. What are the critical subproblems?

2. What are the root causes of each subproblem?

3. What are the high leverage points for resolving the root causes?

Everything else follows from these questions. Each is a "find what matters" question that builds on the question before it. When you've answered all three questions you're done with the analysis. You've found what matters. After that, converging on solutions to push on the high leverage points is relatively easy.

Next we give a brief introduction to SIP. For a full description of the process, an example of how it can be applied, and a collection of sample solution elements produced by the process, see Common Property Rights: A Process Driven Approach to Solving the Complete Sustainability Problem.

The three subproblems

The top of the framework matrix looks like this:

SIP subproblems

First the one big problem is defined in Problem Definition. Then the one big problem is decomposed into the three subproblems present in all difficult social problems:

A. How to overcome change resistance. Presently the human system is strongly resisting changing from unsustainable to sustainable behavior.

B. How to achieve proper coupling. Presently the human system is improperly coupled to the environment. The feedback loops necessary for sustainable environmental impact are simply not there.

C. How to avoid excessive model drift. The model governments use to run themselves is incapable of solving the sustainability problem. It has drifted so far from what's needed that it's broken.

Without this decomposition the problem is insolvable because you are trying to simultaneously solve all three subproblems at the same time without realizing it. That's one reason why the environmental movement has been unable to solve the sustainability problem. Environmentalists are blind to the need to treat "How to overcome change resistance" as a separate problem and solve that first. Once change resistance is overcome the system will "want" to be sustainable. It will eagerly adopt proper coupling solutions like carbon taxes, strict pollution laws, and sustainable product life cycle design.

The four main steps

Each subproblem then goes through the steps of analysis, solution convergence, and implementation as shown below.

SIP subproblems and main steps

Lets compare the four main steps of SIP to the four main steps of Classic Activism, which is the problem solving process used by environmentalists today:

System Improvement Process

1. Problem Definition
2. Analysis
3. Solution Convergence
4. Implementation

Classic Activism

1. Identify the problem
2. Find the proper practices
3. Tell people the truth about them
4. If that fails, inspire, exhort, and bargain

In step 2 of Classic Activism, the proper practices are the practices required to live sustainably, like renewable energy, less pollution, and supporting the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Not only does Classic Activism fail to use proper decomposition. It also has no analysis step. This huge flaw is the second reason the world has been unable to solve the sustainability problem. Without deep analysis, how can you possibly solve a difficult problem?

The heart of the analysis step of SIP is root cause analysis. This powerful tool allows us to implement:

Our Fundamental Principle

The only way to solve a difficult problem
is to resolve its root causes.

In order to do this it's necessary to add:

The five substeps of analysis

These are listed below. Note how they use feedback loop modeling to find the root causes and then the high leverage points for resolving the root causes. The analysis step is so difficult and crucial it's where you should spend about 80% of your time. If your root causes and high leverage points are reasonably correct, then steps 3 and 4 will be relatively easy. But if your analysis is wrong, no amount of brilliant hard work in steps 3 and 4 will solve the problem.

SIP complete grid

This is the complete SIP "fill in the blanks" table. It contains 22 steps. The 23rd step is not shown and is the most important step of all: continuous process improvement. That's what has taken SIP to where it is today.

Behind the wheel of a Ferrari

It's an apt metaphor. SIP is every bit as sporty and fast as a Ferrari. You don't have the control you need unless where you sit is loaded with controls. Each control is a step in driving, or should we say racing, to your destination. SIP has 23 steps. The Gestalt whole of those steps is every bit as powerful and productive as the 23 controls (click on the image to see them) on the Ferrari.

The 23rd step of SIP is continuous process improvement. The 23rd control of the F12berlinetta is the keys to the car. In both cases number 23 is the most powerful and enabling step of them all because continuous process improvement is the keys to the car.

A high level view of the System Improvement Process

Here's a high level view of what the System Improvement Process looks like:

System Improvement Process Arrow - A high level view of the process

This is the fifth image in the clickable at the bottom of each page. The main point of the image is to summarize the process and to show that popular approaches skip the Root Cause Analysis steps entirely. This causes them to go with superficial solutions instead of systemic solutions. That's why popular solutions fail to fully solve the problem.

Step 6 states "The system now runs in a new mode." In difficult social problems, unresolved root causes emit forces that lock the system into its current mode. Resolving the root causes eliminates the forces arising from the root causes. The solution also introduces new forces. The result is the system lurches from one equilibrium to another, from the old mode to the new mode.

Superficial solutions cannot cause a large complex system with a difficult problem to change modes. That's another way to explain why superficial solutions fail.

Why has environmentalism failed to solve the sustainability problem from the perspective of SIP?

Once you grasp how SIP works, you will see it contains the minimum steps required to solve the problem. All three subproblems are required. Root causes must be found for each subproblem. So must the high leverage points. Then, once analysis is complete the solution convergence and implementation steps can follow.

This raises the question, how many of the 23 steps of SIP has the environmental movement performed? The answer is shown below:

SIP grid with Classic Activism results

As SIP sees it, problem solvers have completed only 2 steps. Both were admirably done by The Limits to Growth in 1972. But what have the super sleuth’s of the world been doing since then? Where are the results for the rest of the process or one something like it? I’ve searched for years, but they are nowhere to be found. Instead, what we find are the artifacts of Classic Activism, like what should be done and why we have to do it and please let’s do it now, because if we don’t….

Still, Jay Forrester, the Club of Rome, Dennis and Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and the rest of the 17 person Limits to Growth team pulled off a precocious miracle. They spotted a problem few had noticed and wrestled it into a form that allowed them to complete the first two steps.

Summary of Analysis Results

Over a seven year period developed SIP and applied it to the sustainability problem. The results are shown below:

Summary of Analysis Results

For discussion of the table please see Summary of Analysis Results.

For a more detailed description of SIP please see this paper.

Browse the Glossary
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A Short Introduction to How SIP Works

We now have a short panphlet describing how SIP works. After that try one of our recent papers, the one on Building a Foundational Framework for Sustainability Science with Root Cause Analysis and the System Improvement Process.

A List of Some of the World's Most Incredibly Productive Processes

Every difficult problem requires some type of process to solve it. If all you do is solve problems, then your problem solving process is your most valuable asset. It's even more important than your people, because without a stellar process, even stellar people cannot solve truly difficult problems.

This fact has not escaped the attention of science and business. Here's a few of the more prominent processes they depend on:

The Scientific Method, a five step process that forms the foundation of all of science.

The evolutionary algorithm, a natural process identified by Charles Darwin in 1859 in his On the Origin of Species. For more see The Cycle of Evolution.

Double entry accounting, a process for tracking and understanding the flow of money in business. Without it business would be unable to calculate the profitability of a decision. Profits could not be calculated, which means dividends could not be paid.

DNA sequencing, a complex process for determining the makeup of a molecule of DNA. This process has become the core of genetic engineering because it offers a map to what you have and where you want to go.

Six Sigma, a quality improvement process. According to iSixSigma, "General Electric, one of the most successful companies implementing Six Sigma, has estimated benefits on the order of $10 billion during the first five years of implementation."

The mass production assembly line, first perfected by Henry Ford in 1908 to 1915 for production of the Model T automobile. The new process allowed production of the world's first affordable car, one that could be widely purchased by the middle class.