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iDIA Computing Newsletter

June 2021

Systems of Deming and Satir

W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying "A bad system will beat a good person every time." His point was that to improve business results, it took more than heroic efforts by people--it took creating a system where the efforts of people were effective toward achieving those business results.

Similarly, Virginia Satir noticed that when a family identified a family member who "had a problem," she could work with that family member on changing their behavior. When they went back into the family system, though, the "problem behavior" returned.

The nature of systems

A system is a collection of parts that, together, produce results that no part will produce by itself. Deming saw these parts in terms of functions, activities, and sub-processes. You can also look at a system in terms of the entities, departments, teams, and people, that perform these functions. Each of these views provides different insights into the workings of the system.

The nature of systems resides in the relationships between the parts--the interdependency of those parts. These relationships tend to either promote or inhibit a particular aspect of a part. If we diagram the effects that the parts have on each other, we find that there are loops, where a part affects a second part, which affects a third part, and so on until we find a part that affects the first one again. Some of these loops tend toward instability, amplifying the particular aspect. Other loops tend toward balance, regulating the particular aspect.

In a complex system there are many of these loops, overlapping one another, and vying for the control of the aspect we are studying. The complexity defies a complete analysis of all of the relationships and the effects of those relationships within the system. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that a system that exists for a length of time achieves a homeostatic balance that tends to correct for any attempts to shift the system. The existing feedback loops make a powerful control system that no one input is likely to overcome.

Human systems

Systems composed of humans are complex by nature. This is true whether a business system or a family. These are the systems that Deming and Satir talk about.

It is naive to think that we can define a system to be the way we want and expect to achieve our desired results. In addition to the explicit system we define, there are implicit relationships that we may not intend, or even notice. For this reason, our system may sometimes react in ways that surprise us.

While we cannot completely analyze a working system, by looking at the relationships between parts, and intuiting relationships we cannot directly see by the surprising behavior we do, we can identify potential points of intervention to get more of the behavior we want and less of what we don't want. Then we can try experiments of adjusting relationships, perhaps adding a new explicit relationship, and see how that affects the aspect we wish to change. Of course, we should also observe widely looking for other aspects that might also change, perhaps for the worse.

Tinkering with running systems is a ticklish business. Do so with abundant caution. Realize, though, that this is the only way you can effectively modify your business system. Your choice is to do so intentionally and heedfully, or unintentionally and unconsciously.


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