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A Systems Thinking Approach to Border Security

The Connector - Spring 2019 Issue

A Systems Thinking Approach to Border Security

Peter Heffron Peter Heffron

“Whenever I have an excuse to use Systems Thinking, I do,” says Peter Heffron, who was an international development consultant for many years. “Systems Thinking gets people out of their own heads to analyze problems in a transparent, easily sharable way.”

When Heffron tuned into the chaotic U.S. debate over border security, he saw an acute need for the problem-solving capabilities of Systems Thinking. Most people agree that the U.S. borders should be protected, but senators, representatives, and the Executive Branch differ on how to do so. Several factors complicate the problem: the relationship between security and poverty south of the border, low-cost labor demand in the U.S., immigration, the drug trade, and the policies that address each of these issues.

On January 25th, 2019, the disagreement became a governmental crisis. The President gave Congress three weeks to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. If they didn’t cooperate, the President would shut down a large portion of the federal government for the second time in a year.

“I felt that Systems Thinking and other problem-solving tools and expertise could help Republican and Democratic senators and representatives through a seemingly impossible task,” says Heffron. “Given the three-week deadline imposed by the potential second government shutdown, it was worth suggesting a practical way to move forward.”

Heffron has often seen how Systems Thinking can help diverse stakeholder groups gain shared understanding and form consensus around solutions. “I read the first Limits to Growth in 1972 and was fascinated by how the authors developed a model that showed how the planet could be headed for disaster,” says Heffron. “In the 1990s, as a Project Manager with CARE [an international humanitarian agency] in Honduras, I wanted to apply that kind of systems modeling analysis to a participatory strategic planning process for developing low-income communities.”

Heffron has often seen how Systems Thinking can help diverse stakeholder groups gain shared understanding and form consensus around solutions.

Just as Congress debates the best way to achieve border security, aid delivery in Honduras inspired many opinions. Heffron and his peers from Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services all experienced problems with overseeing relief and development programs in Honduras. To move past these problems, they “wanted to establish a participatory strategic planning process that included economically marginalized program beneficiaries, the formally educated and those with no formal education, policy makers, participants of all genders and ages, and technical people.”

Heffron asked Barry Richmond from High Performance Systems (now isee systems) if HPS would help CARE, Save the Children, and Catholic Relief Services design a new strategic planning process. “It was amazing to see such a diverse group in action,” said Heffron. “With the guidance of HPS staff and Systems Thinking principles, methods, and tools including Stella® software, everyone’s ideas were taken seriously and discussed in a format that allowed us to come up with a viable, inclusive, and prioritized development strategy for local, national, and international aid organizations.”

Heffron applied that Systems Thinking experience to his proposal to end the border security deadlock. He described it as “a bipartisan, win-win, fast-track solution to the border security issue.” The proposal addresses three constraints: time to reach a solution, intransigence of the parties, and a lack of understanding of both the root of the problem and cost-effective options to solve it.

To address the three-week time constraint, the proposal considered physical barriers/walls and emphasized the need for more time to establish a responsible, comprehensive, bipartisan plan and legislation. The proposed initiative would start with a two-day meeting of the bipartisan congressional border security committee facilitated by a Systems Thinking expert.

Heffron presented the intransigence of the President’s “a southern border wall or near-complete government shutdown” versus the Speaker of the House’s “border security, but no wall” positions as "a lose-lose approach." He suggested a joint White House-Congress statement that acknowledges a mutual interest in border security and includes consideration of physical barriers and other border security-related interventions, as recommended by a team of non-political, bipartisan professionals.

[Heffron] believes that dedicated Systems Thinking organizations and developers like isee systems should lead the exploration of ways for everyone to become more engaged in the local, national, and global problem-solving process.

The committee would use the facilitator's advice and Systems Thinking methods to identify key border security problems and their primary causes and effects. The results of this exercise would identify the main elements of comprehensive border security over one year, five years, and further into the future, which in turn would inform the priorities of the comprehensive border security analysis. The workshop would also produce an action plan, the scope of work for a professional review of issues and recommended solutions, and a list of the expertise needed to implement the plan, including the specialized knowledge of Systems Thinking experts.

Heffron initially emailed the proposal to fourteen senators and fourteen representatives who represented a balance of parties, gender, and geographic locations. Once Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi formed the House-Senate Conference Committee on Homeland Security to deal specifically with the border security issue, Heffron also sent the proposal to the seven senators and ten representatives on the committee, with copies to CNN and the Washington Post.

Heffron hasn’t received acknowledgement from the committee. However, given the challenging deadline and full Congressional agendas, he didn’t expect feedback, so is not disheartened.

His main takeaway from this problem-solving experience is the critical need for Systems Thinking principles, methods, tools, and expertise to be ubiquitous in schools, universities, local and national government, the UN and other international organizations, and society in general. He believes that dedicated Systems Thinking organizations and developers like isee systems should lead the exploration of ways for everyone to become more engaged in the local, national, and global problem-solving process.

He considers the recently proposed Green New Deal, proposed to address climate change and economic inequality, to be a worthy Systems Thinking application. “It’s a popular but technically flawed plan that could be given more credibility through a Systems Thinking approach,” says Heffron.

And that, in fact, is his next project.

Tackling the Complexities of Healthcare with Stella® Architect

Bruce Gresh Bruce Gresh

Bruce Gresh, PhD, of Simulation Associates, describes the Systems Thinking work he does for large, complex healthcare systems as “a little different from most uses of systems dynamics simulation.” First, the models he builds to understand and analyze those systems are very large, usually more than 150 pages. Second, they incorporate a very large number of sectors including clinical services offered, staffing patterns, market competition, federal and state regulations, service-specific payment rates for multiple public and private payers, and more. Third, his clients never see them.

“Healthcare executives don’t have time to build models and they aren’t interested in looking at complex diagrams,” says Gresh. “They already know the relationships in their systems - how staffing levels impact costs as well as patient satisfaction, for example. But healthcare moves fast and executives have to make quick decisions. The relationships they understand often get buried or overlooked in the decision-making process. They need tools that play out complex decision dynamics and help them understand potential results and remind them of the risks of unintended consequences.”

Instead of exposing his executive clients to the deep detail of his models, Gresh leads them through simulations that help them examine the complexities and tradeoffs of their systems. The simulations draw on several resources, including a written case study that describes the system’s current status, and a user’s guide that includes response curves illustrating causal relationships. “When executives can put in motion the relationships they already understand, and play them out over time, they see the power of simulation modeling,” says Gresh.

[Healthcare executives] need tools that play out complex decision dynamics and help them understand potential results and remind them of the risks of unintended consequences.

For example, executives know that technological changes such as new hip replacement techniques and materials require fewer days in the hospital. That impacts costs and revenue, and the simulation shows how those changes translate into changes in overall financial performance. The simulation encourages a “whole organization perspective” by including many of these familiar and realistic dynamics.

Simulating the impact of even one change or decision on a large, complex system can be daunting, but Gresh’s healthcare clients do not have the luxury of tackling challenges one by one. “In healthcare, many big problems and big changes happen simultaneously,” says Gresh. “Payment rates are changing, new technology and services are being developed, competitors are making big moves, and organizations are merging with other organizations, all at the same time. The simulations need to handle multiple simultaneous big changes.”

Though every one of Gresh’s client organizations is unique, the challenges and complexities faced by healthcare systems have many similarities. “The model I’ve built is 80-85% the same for each client engagement,” says Gresh. “The base model structure is able to incorporate multiple hospitals and clinics, an array of payers (Medicare, Medicaid, private insurers, direct patient payment, etc.), and a broad range of delivered services.”

That leaves 15-20% of the model to be customized for each client. Gresh adds structures for unique operations, market conditions, financial pressures, local and state regulation mandates, and other system-specific issues. And, of course, a rich set of system-specific financial and operational data drive the model and the behavior of the simulation.

Bruce Gresh's healthcare model Registered nurse staffing from Bruce Gresh's healthcare model

Gresh has a deep background in both Systems Thinking and analysis of healthcare systems. He has been the principal at Simulation Associates for over 20 years and spent several years as Vice President of Strategic Analytics and Forecasting at Vanguard Health Systems. He also teaches in the Executive Education program of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He began systems dynamics modeling in the 1990s using iThink®. About six years ago, he wanted a broader set of interface features, so migrated to other software.

“Stella makes model building much easier,” says Gresh. “It’s very intuitive. And the exchange of models and simulations is a real interest.”

With the release of Stella Architect1, he saw an opportunity to facilitate both model building and simulation sharing. “Stella makes model building much easier,” says Gresh. “It’s very intuitive. And the exchange of models and simulations is a real interest.”

Gresh uses Stella Architect to share simulations and model structures with his clients and Executive Education students. “I don’t have to be a web programmer to share nonpublic work,” says Gresh. “And I’d like to build and share simpler models for public consumption to get more people thinking in a systemic way.”

Given the importance of healthcare to the U.S. economy – it currently accounts for 18% of GDP – and the fast pace of change in financial, operational, and technical aspects of the industry, Gresh sees a growing need to apply Systems Thinking. “Healthcare systems and hospitals are the most complex systems of any industry,” says Gresh. “Many physicians become leaders of those systems. They’re really smart, they learn fast, but their experience and expertise are often underutilized. System Thinking models and simulations can provide valuable insights about how the business of healthcare works.”

1. The newest version of iThink is identical to Stella Architect.

Stella® Professional Online

If you have not heard, we released an exciting new tool for online modeling, Stella Professional Online, which offers the great functionality of Stella Professional in an online platform. With Stella Professional Online, you can model anywhere, anytime, on any device with a modern web browser: desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, or Chromebooks. Stella Professional Online is excellent for schools, institutions with software installation restrictions, and people who are always on the go. If you already own a current Faculty or Non-academic license of Stella Professional or Stella Architect, access to Stella Professional Online is included with your maintenance and support contract. Subscription options are available for non-Stella owners and start at one month with discounts for longer subscriptions. Click here for more information about Stella Professional Online.

From Systems Thinking to Dynamic Modeling Live Course

Are you new to dynamic modeling or need to refresh your knowledge? Join us for our next series of live online courses. We will be offering courses from our From Systems Thinking to Dynamic Modeling series starting in June! This series of six courses is designed to help novice modelers become proficient in modeling and explain the impact of dynamic relationships.

Customers who attend the live classes will be able to ask questions, get feedback on homework, and participate on the class forum. As the courses are online and recorded, you will be able to learn whenever and wherever you want.

Each of the six courses in the series includes four one-hour classes. The first four courses build on each other, while the last two include assorted intermediate topics. Once a course is purchased, all class materials, including a recording of the webinar, homework assignments, PowerPoint slides, models, and any supplemental reading materials will be added to each participant’s account shortly after the class takes place. These courses will also remain in your account for a length of time so you can revisit them.

Our first course, Introduction to Dynamic Modeling I, will begin June 4th. An invitation to register for this live online course will follow in the next couple of weeks.

Leadership Training

isee systems is partnering with Business Simulations to offer four new interactive Leadership Training Simulations. These simulations offer excellent experiential learning in a risk-free environment. Groups of any size can use them to gain valuable insights in areas like Change Management, Business Acumen, High Performing Teams, and Project and Operations Management. Learn more about each of these exciting new simulations below.

Model for creating a High Performance Team in Chapter Chapter's model for creating a High Performance Team

Cohort Change Management Business Simulation helps managers and leaders learn the valuable skills needed to manage a prospective change with senior stakeholders. Cohort is conducted using a highly structured approach that blends gamification, informal/social learning, behavioral economics, and business simulation.

Chapter is a High Performance Team Simulation Game that allows the participants to master the skills necessary to quickly build high performing teams with solid relationships and excellent teamworking practices.

Crew is a Team Management Business Game that requires your team to lead a smaller operational team. Acting collectively in the leader position, teams must schedule their simulated team members to appropriate work projects while dealing with personal, skill-set, attitudinal, and team issues that arise.

XSIM places the participant in the role of a key member of the executive leadership team of a highly successful global real-time entertainment business – NetBox. In this simulation, participants encounter ten common business dilemmas while managing NetBox to keep up with the changing market.

New Webinars

We have presented some great new webinars on the topics of sensitivity analysis, calibration and data handling, and building multiplayer games with arrays and wildcards. These free webinars are a great way to learn more about our software and improve your modeling experience. If you missed out on viewing the live session of these webinars or would like to view them again, select the links below or visit our Webinars page.

Recorded Webinars

Upcoming Webinars

Student Work

Recently, Dartmouth students finished two great modeling projects, one close to isee systems and the second millions of miles away.

The first project focused on an issue that affects many New Hampshire residents. Dartmouth senior Nithila Arumugan ‘19 teamed up with isee systems partner and Dartmouth professor Steve Peterson and isee’s product support manager, Sarah Davie, to model homelessness for the Upper Valley Haven. The Haven is a local non-profit organization that aids people struggling with poverty. Nathila’s model focused on key levers that affect the population’s ability to achieve sustained housing and financial stability, and the impact of the Haven’s interventions. The model analysis showed that the Haven is crucial to helping these individuals and families find stability. As Nathila will be graduating soon, the model will be passed to isee systems, which will continue to tailor the model to be the most effective for the Haven.

The second project involved a mission on Mars. A team of Dartmouth engineering students took on the NASA BIG idea challenge and beat out four other finalists to win the challenge! Their challenge was to determine how to grow crops on Mars in a greenhouse while considering transportation and energy requirements. To better calculate and understand their greenhouse’s optimal growing conditions, the team built a gas composition model in Stella. The model encompassed the requirements for carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and power needed to maintain optimal growing conditions over a 600-sol mission (a sol is one solar day on Mars). This model helped them determine trends, track resources, and test the robustness of their design.


We are excited to introduce our Showcase page! Many of our customers have published amazing simulations and models on the isee Exchange and we want to highlight a sample of them. The showcased simulations span a breadth of subjects, such as economics, urban dynamics, healthcare, and policy planning. Visit the Showcase to view these great simulations and check back often, we will introduce new models as we find them!

On the Road

In July, Co-presidents Karim Chichakly and Bob Eberlein, lead software developer, Billy Schoenberg, and customer service specialist, Hilary Allen, will be traveling to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the 37th annual International System Dynamics Conference (ISDC). We are excited to connect with our customers and hear what they are modeling, how the software is working for them, and where it could improve. Stop by our booth to say hello and get a sneak peek at new Stella features, ask questions, or sign up for one of our conference workshops. While on your travels to the ISDC, be on the lookout for Bob on his bike! He will be biking from Boston to Albuquerque.

Closing the Loop – isee systems Rides for a Cure!

isee does the Prouty

The isee systems biking team, Closing the Loop, will once again participate in The Prouty, an athletic event that raises money for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. The team plans to complete the 100-mile Century ride (and maybe beat last year’s time)!

The event will take place in New Hampshire on July 13, 2019.

If you would like to learn more about the Prouty or make a donation for NCCC cancer research by supporting our team, click here.

Partner Corner

Partner Corner introduces our consulting and training partners and shares their latest news.

Whole Systems Partnership

The National Health Service in England continues to face significant challenges around workforce planning. The Whole Systems Partnership has been working in this area for most of the last decade and has developed a number of career progression models or workforce simulator tools to help clients, who are typically strategic bodies who need to ensure the right training and development is provided, or who need to explore possible futures.

One example is the General Practice workforce simulator. You can see a prototype of this model on the isee Exchange here. This early version of the model simply looks at the knotty issue of skill mix for advanced practitioners where options to enrich the roles available at this skill level are being explored. The full version of the model is now being used with clients includes the full breadth of skills necessary to support a local community physician/General Practice service for a given population and enables clients to understand better the delays and feedbacks in planning for a sustainable workforce in this sector.

The models WSP builds for workforce planning are just one part of a wider strategic capacity and planning toolkit, enabled and informed by the power of simulation and the Stella software. Check that out by searching for us on the Exchange and you’ll find other examples of work in progress or finished products.

Impact Dynamics Limited

Impact Dynamics has over 40 years of experience implementing more than 100 transformational change programs across many sectors. There are two core learnings: (1) repeating failure patterns which manifest as a fracture between strategy and implementation, i.e., between intention and outcome and (2) these failure patterns can be readily corrected to provide extraordinary value.

The failure patterns are essentially a consequence of flawed mental models of cause and effect, perpetuated by tools, such as spreadsheets and data analytics, which support the erroneous thinking. These tools delude us into a false sense of confidence in our erroneous perception of reality. However, performance emanates not from decimal point precision, but from precise causal mental and physical models.

Impact Dynamics offers the exhaustively validated Value Power Framework™, which combines the latest parallel advances in neuroscience and accelerated learning with causal thinking and simulation, where Stella Architect provides a keystone. Each failure pattern is transformed into a phase within the framework and underpinned by a core value principle founded on academic rigor and universal pragmatic applicability. For example, the first failure pattern is value inversion, where a functional solution (what) is assumed before the purpose (why) is adequately specified or causal linkage between the solution and purpose (how) defined and quantified. The corrective phase, Frame, is guided by Value Principle #1: Do the right things, then do things right.

Infographic of DESTA's first-year accomplishments


DESTA in India became an isee systems partner last summer and are celebrating their one-year anniversary.

Dynamic Operations

Dynamic Operations has been headlining Australia using Stella modeling and simulation to argue the positive effects from reducing junk food advertising to children. Articles also appeared in Brisbane Times, The Age, Canberra Times, and the WA Times.

Recent Posts

Fall 2018 Issue

Public health organizations combat alcoholism with Stella, the Social System Design Lab applies system dynamics to community projects, the Cohort simulation helps managers and leaders learn to facilitate change, the 2018 Barry Richmond Scholarship Award winner is announced, new software and licensing features, the 38th annual Prouty, and isee systems heads to Iceland and Mexico…

Fall 2017 Issue

The Ulupono initiative investigates Hawaii food production with systems thinking, African leaders embrace a systems thinking approach to problem solving, a new online training course in creating learning environments, Stella Online has been added to the isee Exchange and exciting updates to Stella Architect...

Fall 2016 Issue

Stella Architect is used to better understand nuclear and other clean energies, high school students learn systems thinking from The Lorax, Systems in Focus looks at waste manangement, Story of the Month: Reissue examines school reform, isee systems heads to Brazil, Stella Architect is released, the company website gets an overdue update...

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