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Most systems go unnoticed until there is a problem

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Most systems go unnoticed until there is a problem

Scott Miker

We are constantly surrounded by and interacting with systems.  On a daily basis we encounter elements of various systems and don’t spend much time thinking about them.

It usually isn’t until there is a problem that we shift our focus to be on the system.  As soon as the problem surfaces we want to know how to correct the problem.

While this may be the way most of us behave, there are many business process improvement strategies that rely on continuous improvement.  It isn’t about waiting for a problem to surface, it is about constantly finding ways to do things better.

Because life is incredibly complex, and there are systems all around us it is usually easier to wait for a problem to surface. 


System that should go unnoticed

The other day my toilet started to act up.  It flushed normally but then seemed to keep running and running.  I took the lid off the tank and peered inside.  I have had to fix toilets before and assumed that this one would be the same setup.

But this toilet had different components than what I have previously seen.  It took me a little while fidgeting with it to finally understand the components.  This is a good example of a system that went completely unobserved by me until there was a problem. 

This makes sense.  Unless we are obsessively curious about things, we probably don’t explore every system that we interact with.  Do we really need to continuously improve our toilet?  Probably not. 

This brings up a common saying, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”  If I decided to try and improve the functionality of the toilet before there was a problem it would probably cause more harm than good. 


System that shouldn’t go unnoticed

Years ago I started to develop poor eating habits.  I was in college and would choose unhealthy options over healthy options.  Each meal I was reinforcing this negative system that would result in weight gain.  I didn’t even pay attention until there was a problem and by then I had gone in the wrong direction for so long that I wished I had tried to improve sooner to make it easier to get back on track.

This is a system that easily could have been explored to constantly improve.  Instead, I ignored it until there was a problem and then tried to change the system only enough to fix the problem. 



There are 2 lessons here.  One is that we should be more curious about systems in our lives if we want to continuously improve.  This may not be trying to understand and improve the toilet but we certainly can continue to improve our eating habits.  If we take on the mindset of continuous improvement we can search out weak systems that could turn into a problem if left unaddressed. 

The second lesson is that problems actually present a great opportunity.  Because we don’t often see the system until a problem surfaces, the problem might be the first nudge to look at the system.  If we start to look at problems as the alerts to improve, we can turn a negative into a positive and determine our reaction. 

But if we don’t use systems thinking we probably just see a problem and find a quick, linear solution to ease the discomfort around that problem.  For example, instead of taking constructive criticism that we receive in our annual review and work to improve, we simply quit our job to avoid having to deal with the discomfort that came from hearing this feedback.  The discomfort subsides but only because we are avoiding the problem not correcting it. 

Instead of seeing our weight increasing and using this to prompt us to start exercising, we simply go out for burgers with friends so we don’t think about it.  This will probably reduce the discomfort temporarily but certainly won’t have any lasting improvement effects. 

We always have choices.  Systems are all around us and we can choose to constantly look for ways to improve.  But even if we do this we will always have problems surface.  Choose to look at these problems as alerts that there is something wrong in the system and then look to use system thinking to find ways to improve.