Life is systematic. All around us are systems that impact us. Often, we can’t see the whole system so we just focus on a small portion of the system.
But seeing the larger system can be in way to gain understanding and then know how to move forward to adapt to better fit the system or work to change the system.
Our Emotions Around Seeing Systems for the First Time
When we first start to see the system our emotions tend to run wild. We might get excited, overwhelmed, afraid, and everything in between. It starts to become a brand new way of seeing the world. Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle come together and you realize this whole time the system was always there and always impacting you.
In Presence, by Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers, the authors talk about this journey of seeing the full system. They explain it through a recent conversation they were having about Senge seeing larger system for the first time. Here is the section that discusses this:
‘“My immediate experience was more of being a victim, because in the moment I couldn’t see any way to influence the system I found myself stuck in. I don’t think that’s uncommon when people first start to see a larger system at play.”
“I think this is because the first awareness of larger forces, or a larger pattern, is just the beginning,” said Otto. “It’s as if we awake to something that’s been going on all around us but that we haven’t seen. Maybe we’ve even subconsciously worked to keep ourselves from seeing it. Then, all of a sudden, we see this larger pattern, and it’s a real ‘Aha!’ By suspending our normal analytic ways of thinking, we allow ourselves to encounter the system directly.”
The authors of the book are experienced systems thinkers but even they realize that seeing the full system isn’t always natural. Humans don’t start by thinking this way. We start with quick, linear thoughts and analysis. This is the major difference between systems thinking and linear thinking.
But taking a step back to envision the full system can be incredibly beneficial. It can give us great insight into seeing a problem with fresh eyes and come up with a solution that understands the full system, rather than one that ignores the larger system.
Quality Control Improvement Example
Here is an example from a recent experience I had at work. We were trying to reduce the time it takes us to do our quality control process. We are a repair center for medical equipment and we have to run the equipment for several hours and then check the levels in order to confirm that the machine is fixed.
This process can be a bit time consuming. About a month ago we started to track the time it takes per unit to complete the quality control process. It seemed to take longer than it should so we wanted to know what we could do to improve the process.
Our quality control person said that he felt the end of the process was very cumbersome and inefficient. This was the part of the process where all the equipment is lined up and we take clear bags to place over the equipment and then place in their respective delivery bins to get sent to customers.
The first few suggestions relied on linear thinking. Some ideas that were thrown out were to stop bagging the equipment or hire someone else to bag it so the QC person doesn’t have to.
But these aren’t good system improvements. By not bagging the equipment for customers, they would receive their equipment back and it wouldn’t have the same experience of receiving a clean, bagged machine. This would hurt our customer’s experience with us in order to be slightly more efficient.
Having someone else bag the units just meant that we shift the inefficiency to a different person. We don’t really solve for it we just have someone else do that part. The time would still be spent doing that.
Finally we started to realize that we needed to improve the bagging process. We realized the bags were in the QC space but the completed units were usually moved and lined up in another section.
This meant that the QC person had to grab 60-70 bags from the roller, tear them off, tear them apart individually, walk them over to the line of units, place a bag on each unit, then go one-by-one and open each bag and place it over the machine.
The solution we came up with was to move the roll of bags to the other section. This meant that the QC person could simply add the bag as they lined up the units. The roll had all the bags in the same order with the opening coming off the roll first. The QC person can simply pull the bag right from the roll to the unit.
Many people felt that this wouldn’t make a difference. It didn’t seem like a major change and they couldn’t understand how this would help in any way. So we measured it.
We took the average time that it took prior to making the change and compared it to the time per unit after the change. What we found was that we reduced the average time per unit from 4.9 minutes per unit to 3.6 minutes per unit! This reduced the time per unit by almost a minute and a half.
Since we have 60-90 units per day go through QC, we now saved a couple hours a day with this change. The QC person can now move on to other duties much quicker than he could before. This had a major impact on our operations and helped us become more efficient.
Switching from Credit to Debit
Improvements that come from seeing the full system don’t just have to be at work. Our personal lives are full of areas that can be improved with a little systems thinking.
A few years after college I found myself in debt. I started a business right out of college and racked up some credit card debt while I got it going. At one point I picked up some additional work and thought it would be easy to finally pay off the debt.
But after a few months I found something interesting. Instead of paying off my debt I was adding to it faster than normal. “This can’t be,” I thought. “I make more now so why am I not seeing my balances go down?”
What I realized was that I was used to spending more than I could afford. It became easy to throw purchases on the credit card and worry about them later. I was always justifying a business purchase as one I needed to make.
I started realizing that I didn’t really need the things I convinced myself that I needed. I really needed a better way to decide to buy something or not.
I tried many different approaches and some worked and some didn’t. One that had a drastic impact was to switch from using the credit cards to make purchases to using cash or debit card. This forced me to consider the impact on my accounts and my budget. I would have to keep all receipts and log them in a checking account excel spreadsheet that I created.
Suddenly the new equipment, drinks with a client, or even the daily lunch weren’t a “need to have”. They became “nice to have” and many times, unnecessary. I paid more attention to where my money went and wouldn’t spend money as recklessly as I did when I just put it on the credit card.
By switching to a new system for spending money I was able to get rid of all my credit card debt (over $10,000) in a little over a year. And this gave me a new system that I could continue to improve and evolve to better fit my lifestyle and assure myself that I wouldn’t have credit card debt again. I still use the excel spreadsheet to this day and have found it crucial to being able to balance a family budget to make sure money goes where it is needed and not wasted.
This represents seeing the full system and then finding elements of that system that can be changed and improved. Initially when I increased my income I thought linearly that my debt would automatically decrease. I assumed the higher income would automatically go towards paying off my balance. When this didn’t happen I needed to see the full system and then tweak aspects of the system in order to fix the problems of the system.
Stop Projecting Your Habitual Assumptions
In Presence, the authors do a great job to emphasize the value of systems thinking. They state, “Learning to see begins when we stop projecting our habitual assumptions and start to see reality freshly. It continues when we can see our connection to that reality more clearly.”
Instead of relying your habitual assumptions, start to explore the full systems that exist. They often go unnoticed in an attempt to quickly move forward but many times seeing the full system shows us a fresh reality that we can then adjust and improve, as we desire.