The Big Problem With Systems Thinking


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There is lots of talk about systems thinking. The talk sounds a little like this:

  • Organisations are a system of connected parts
  • It is the connections in the system that dictate performance
  • If we improve the system we can improve performance

It is a fascinating conversation — no really it is.

But there is a big problem with systems thinking, it is hard to see a system.

So instead of managing the system…

We manage the things we can see

Imagine a used car sales man who fails to make the sale. We can see the salesman, and we can see his sales figures, so we:

  • Incentivise him, more money, more sales
  • Give him goals
  • Make them SMART, 4 cars sold per week every week till Christmas
  • Rank against his peers so he can see exactly how he is doing
  • Give him motivational pep talks
  • Put the fear of god into him and threaten him with the sack

We manage the salesman and we manage his sales figures. We manage the things we can see…

But we ignore the things we can’t

If we went and looked we might just find out that:

  • He hasn’t been given any sales training
  • His promotional materials are poor
  • He hasn’t the budget to pay for a car cleaner
  • He can’t offer an after sales warranty
  • His sales lot is hidden behind the municipal tip
  • The local teenagers hang around outside (hoodies and all)

Are these just excuses?

Or are they the reasons why he never sells a car? I don’t know. I do know that the only way to really find out is to go and look. It is hard to manage something if you don’t see it.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. – Thoreau

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The problem with Systems Thinking

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Image by konomike

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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