When the System is the Problem
Working within the system vs changing the system
The Systems We Work In
Often the system is the real problem.
In a classic example of this, Dr. W. Edwards Deming created the Red Bead Experiment:
To summarize the video above, there are several workers who randomly pull red and white beads from a bin using flat tool with holes in it that catches beads. A team of inspectors counts the red beads and then a recorder records the number of red beads. The fewer red beads each time, the better (red beads representing defects and white beads representing good work).
Each worker goes through the exercise for a few rounds. Deming chastises them as they go through, especially as their number of red beads varies. Why can’t they improve on the number of red beads? Why aren’t the motivational posters helping them select fewer red beads? Why aren’t they learning to pull fewer red beads? Why don’t they follow in the footsteps of their coworker who previously pulled only 5 red beads?
Of course, the main point is that each selection of beads is completely random. Each worker has no control over how many red beads they will pull each time and, despite the negativity, their work actually falls within a statistically normal range for the parameters they are working in.
So if the workers aren’t the problem, and in fact are doing well for what we can expect, what is the problem?
In the case of Deming’s Beads, it is clearly the system they are working in. They have a set of guidelines they are expected to follow, expectations for their work from management and from each other, and the inescapable fact of the beads in the bin.
Without changing the system, there is little hope of changing the outcomes of the work each worker is producing.
This is often the case in so many circumstances we encounter. Like Deming’s experiment, we can hang posters, we can give motivational lectures or bonuses, or fire people and hire new ones. But it is often the system itself that dictates the outcomes. And if we don’t address that, we can’t change the ultimate results.
So where else do we see this around us? And how can we begin to change our systems?
Roads and Car Dependence
I wrote recently about our dependence on cars.
“It’s incredibly easy to get stuck in our system. We build roads because we’ve always built roads. We rely on cars because we’ve always relied on cars. We don’t consider alternatives because we’ve never really considered alternatives.”
We won’t rehash too much of this here, but we don’t zoom out enough to see that we may be optimizing the wrong things.
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