Leadership & Systems Thinking
Posted by Orrin Woodward on December 27, 2010
Have you ever watched a team of mountain climbers scale a cliff? I have watched with awe as the mountain climbers work together, as a team, to pull of this feat. Imagine five climbers, all connected together by ropes and pulleys, ensuring the safety of all, scaling a cliff thousands of feet up. The five climbers are a system, each action by one of the climbers affects the actions of the rest. No climber could choose to scale the cliff if the others, were resting. In fact, no four of the climbers could scale the cliff if just one chose to stop. The ropes magnify the interdependence between the individuals, but with or without the ropes, people in communities are part of a system, being interdependent upon one another. Each person in a community needs to understand systematic thinking as their actions will affect all others in the community. Every leader must learn to think systematically in order to lead to his full potential. Systems thinking is the process of understanding how individual parts influence one another within the entity as a whole. Both nature and organizations are filled with systems. Nature is filled with ecosystems involving air, water, plants, animals and more in systems to sustain life, while organizational systems consist of people, structures, and processes that interact to produce results. Whether the results are good or bad depends upon the system interactions orchestrated by the leader.
Remember the story of the elephant and the blind men? This is an excellent example displaying systems thinking. Read it again, thinking through how portions of truth must be combined (like a system) to gain the entire truth.
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.” They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated, each blind man wondering how the others could be so stupid. Each believing they had the truth, since he felt it with his own hands. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right and all of you are wrong. The reason each of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. Each of you has a partial truth. The elephant has all the features that each of you described, but isn’t fully what you described unless you combine all of your answers.”
Each of the blind men has touched upon a truth of the elephant, but individually, none of them had the whole truth. If they had spent their time arguing, insisting upon the truth of what they had felt with their own hands, the community would have broken down, forming individual perceptions and not gaining a system perspective of the truth. Only when each individual learns that they are part of a system, touching upon truth at some point, but probably not touching upon the total systematic truth, will each teammate seek out alternative perspectives. Many times, disagreements are not really disagreements at all, but just individuals seeing or feeling a different aspect of the system, revealing a portion of the truth, that only when combined yields the whole truth. System thinking is essential for leaders to help everyone work as a team, gathering all of the facts to accurately model the system they are working on to improve. Without a systems perspective, the leader quickly takes sides with one of his personal favorites, forcing others to comply with his partial interpretation of the truth, killing his credibility, alienating many of his teammates, destroying the motivation to share alternative perspectives in the future.
I love the blind men analogy. If leaders will remember the lesson of the blind men, their ability to solve problems will greatly increase, no longer satisfied with portions of the truth, they will seek out all perspectives to gain a larger view of reality. Let’s discuss another example of systems thinking. I believe I heard a version of this story first from Stephen Covey. Covey uses the example of a fishermen going to a river to enjoy a day of fishing, but just minutes after getting there, he sees a young boy flailing his arms in the middle of the river, screaming for help. The fishermen jumps in and save him. The boy is healthy, so the fishermen starts fishing, but fifteen minutes later, a young girl is flailing her arms, yelling for help, in the middle of the river. The fishermen saves her also. At this point, he ponders what the odds are, that two people would need saving on the same day. Fifteen minutes later, when a third child needs to be rescued, he is certain that there must be more to the picture (system), than he is touching upon. At this point, he starts asking questions, no longer believing that the children who needed rescuing, are isolated events. He believes there is more to this system than is meeting his eyes. The fishermen, deciding to solve the cause at its roots, not just continue to trim at the leaves, walks upstream, discovering a children’s camp. The fishermen finds that the local bully, doing what bullies do, was throwing kids in the river every fifteen minutes, and would continue to do so, until everyone surrendered their money. The fishermen, a true problem solver, took the bully by the ear, walked him into the camp office, solved the root cause of the problem (the bully), and enjoyed the remaining fishing time in peace.
I know the example is simplistic, but it does capture the main points in systematic thinking. Many times in life, people run from emergency to emergency, never stopping to think if the emergencies are related systematically. The simple system described above included the boys and girls, the bully, the river, and the fishermen downstream. The fishermen would have had a busy day, if he hadn’t solved the problem at its root. You can stay busy your entire life, but unless you are solving problems at the root, nothing of long-term consequence is being solved. Busy is not the goal, but productivity is. As Covey teaches, one can trim the leaves for life, but if you wish to eliminate a tree, one must attack the roots. Toyota has a problem solving system that helps discover the root causes, called the Five Whys. It teaches that most root causes are at least five questions removed from the issue that is being addressed at the moment. The root cause is usually not the first why, but, if one will keep asking questions, the root cause will typically be revealed.
For example, if someone slips and falls on a slippery factory floor, breaking their arm in the process, the quick solution is to order a cleaning crew to work more hours, cleaning the floors daily to ensure a non-slippery surface. A non-slippery floor is the right answer, but before hiring extra people, spending money and time on the problem, the Five Why’s would attempt to discover the root cause (like the bully in example above). Leaders aren’t happy with just trimming the leaves, while the root cause remains unaddressed and will use the Five Why’s to help determine the root issues. The Five Whys in this example would go something like this:
Q: Why did the man slip and fall?
A: Because the ground was slippery.
Q: Why was the ground slippery?
A: Because there was oil on the floor.
Q: Why was there oil on the floor?
A: Because one of the machines was leaking oil.
Q: Why was the machine leaking oil?
A: Because an oil pan bolt was loose.
Why was the oil pan bolt loose?
A: Because the machine vibrated the bolt loose.
Q: Why did the machine vibrate the bolt loose?
A: Because the shaft bearing is worn out in the machine.
Q: Why is the shaft bearing worn out in the machine?
A: Because maintenance hasn’t changed it and it is past it’s useable life.
Q: Why haven’t they changed out the old bearing?
A: Because we cut all preventative maintenance in a cost cutting measure.
The Five Why’s has revealed the systematic issue in the factory system, not just the obvious answer of cleaning up the oil. When the preventative maintenance program was eliminated, in an effort to save money, it brought upon other effects, not clearly understood at the time. If another department has to hire more cleaning crews, or paying overtime to existing ones, then we have not really saved any money, but still have a maintenance issue. This only compounds the factories problems further, having not understood the systematic effects of the choices made. Trimming the leaves by cutting preventative maintenance, but causing a bigger root problem, by machines failing over time. Without the proper machine maintenance, further degradation is inevitable, leading to more trimming leaves behavior, while the root cause, the improper maintenance, ruins the productivity and safety of the entire factory. Only when the leader thinks systematically, will the root cause be revealed. Preventative maintenance will be reinstated; machines run with quality bearings; the bolts will stay tight; the oil remains in the pan; and people can walk the floor without endangering their safety. The factory is a system, every action performed by one department will have effects on numerous others departments. It’s only when the leader thinks of the entire system (elephant above), that the entire truth will be revealed, leading to decisions made upon the total systems, not just the partial truths that each department feels. God Bless, Orrin Woodward