Have you seen the system? Let’s start with a little story..
A father goes into his children’s bedroom to wake them up and get them ready for school. As he pulls the covers off of his daughter, he notices that her eyes seem a little cloudy. He finds a thermometer and checks his daughter’s temperature. It reads 101.7 F, she definitely has a fever. His daughter’s school has a very clear policy that children should be fever free for 24 hours before being brought in to school. This means Dad is going to have to call his employer and let them know that he won’t be able to make it in because he has a sick child he needs to take care of. Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? But is it?
Dad’s employer keeps track of how often their employees call in to say that they will not be able to make it in for one reason or the other. Employees are dinged for not “showing up” and it affects their yearly raise and bonus. It just so happens that Dad is one ding away from some significant repercussions. On the other hand, the company does nothing if an employee comes in to work but has to leave because of a situation. As long as you show up (even if its for just one hour) you are good.
Dad being fully aware of his situation at work, decides to take his daughter in to school fully expecting to be called to come and pick her up in just a few hours. In his mind it’s a win-win situation because he’ll still be able to take care of his daughter and not get dinged for not showing up to work. What he doesn’t know is that his daughter will go on to spread her sickness to a couple of the other kids in her class. He also doesn’t realize that the parents of these children work for organizations with the same “call in” policy as his and are also going to bring in their sick children to school. His decision to take his daughter in to school has just triggered weeks of kids being sick in the class. In fact, his daughter will fall sick again a few weeks from now.
So what’s the system in this story? Can you identify it? Many of us might be quick to judge the father harshly for taking his daughter in to school but when you consider the structure(s) that influenced his behavior, you realize that there are a set of interconnected elements working together even though they may not be obvious to the different actors involved.
Wikipedia describes system thinking as:
…the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole.
Dr Deming defined a system as:
…network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system
Peter Senge describes as system as:
webs of interdependence.
Russ Ackoff on the system:
A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart. The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may be part of a larger system.
and Ackoff advises that we should
…focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.
A team struggling with quality thinks that better or more QA people need to be added to the team or the iteration needs to be longer. An organization struggling with product delivery has its development team go on an Agile transformation. Confusion exists around what people should be doing, so an exhaustive writeup needs to be done to clarify this for everyone. An employee is underperforming so they must be slacking and are put on a performance improvement plan. There is no shortage of reactive analytical responses that show up in the workplace on a day to day basis. Yet these responses really don’t solve anything over the long-haul. They are at best, cheap band-aids. We are solving problems with the same mindset that we used to create them (Albert Einstein). We fail to identify the components and the interactions between these components within the system.
When we take a systems view to addressing problems, we make an attempt to see as much of the whole picture as is possible. We realize that our development team is part of a large product delivery organization. We understand that the employee struggling with performance problems just had a new baby and is not getting much sleep at night but is on our most complex project. We realize that product management is making commitments that are leading our developers to cut corners ultimately leading to poor quality. A systems thinking view to problem solving causes us to look beyond where we “think” the problems are to identifying the different components and the interactions between these components that is actually leading to our problems.
Let’s be humble enough to realize that we may never see the whole system but at least we’re trying to. Don’t be deceived, taking a systems view is by no means the natural thing to do because we are taught (from an early age) to break things up and address the individual components independently. I meet many people who say that they are systems thinkers but really cannot see beyond their nose in problem dissolving. They just don’t know how to do it because they haven’t learned how to. I’m still learning. If you haven’t read the works of Deming, Senge, Ackoff and Weinberg (for example), you may want to start there. We need to learn how to become system thinkers if we truly intend to dissolve our system problems.
Thanks to Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei) for inspiring this post.