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Roll Up or Roll Out?

uuDr. Linda Ellington
Associate Professor of Business
Palm Beach Atlantic University

Systems thinkers believe the whole is greater than the parts. They see the whole picture and the connections between and among seemingly disparate events and processes and use this information to make reliable inferences developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.  Here is how it works!

In another world I worked as a corporate strategist and participated in an ad hoc team consisting of analytical strategists and key hardware engineers. Our task was to reduce costs and weight for a computer system.  As we sat in our ‘comfortable conference room’ surrounded by food and beverages to make us comfortable during our brainstorming sessions we were only aware of our inner surroundings. Our laser like focus was on cause and effect; find the one cause, correct the defect and get the effect. In a repetitive process, we searched for cause and defect to get the effect; lower costs and weight.

What our analysis led to was a redesign of  the screws that held the top panel on the bottom of the computer.  From our functional department point of view, we had accomplished our mission. It required a single part redesign. It was a roll up (others would revise the instruction manual, the manufacturing process), or so we thought at the time.

When we rolled up the strategic solution to those who reviewed and approved our work we were shocked to learn we were not finished. Yes we found cause, defect, and effect.  We were congratulated on our technical breakthrough, but we were then peppered with questions such as: what is the effect this decision has on the instructional manual in forty different languages by our India vendor? What downstream changes needed to be made by our manufacturers in Japan, and Australia?  How long would these changes take? What were the costs that were to be incurred in robotic programming to make the changes? What would be the profit margin of making the changes? Was there a tradeoff between costs and weight that should be considered? etc, etc. 

Humbled, we went back to our comfortable well stocked meeting room and we lamented. Why hadn’t we addressed all the questions that were raised?   Why did we fail to consider the environment, other systems, the multiple delayed causalities, the interrelationships and interdependencies with other parts of the corporation that would be affected by our decision?  Here we were, a group of  talented engineers; but our conclusion was that we were stuck in the past. We had used analytical thinking and found the cause of the technical problem. We needed to employ systems thinking to find answers to the systems problems.  We needed to think holistically!

We  began to change the questions we were asking ourselves.  The answers we got gave an understanding of the whole system not just its parts.   Armed with our new insights we went back into the Lion’s Den and presented our new findings. Yes, we found a cause, a defect that led to an effect. This correction would also require other changes to be made to correct the defect. The changes in manufacturing, manuals, and training schemes were costly but within a period of three years they would yield larger profit margins.  Our recommendation, if the company was willing to defer gratification on cost benefits we should go for it.

 Several messages for leaders can be extracted from the roll up.

First as Senge (1991) recommends, a systems thinker must “start at the gap – the discrepancy between what is desired and what exists.  The team started well by focusing on the gap created by costs and weights. Their moment of kairos was in finding the heavy weighted screw. But they stopped thinking. When they received feedback, they had their second ‘ah ha’ moment and looked at the actions that should be taken to correct the gap from a systems rather than a technical single departmental viewpoint.

The second lesson is that due to the interrelated nature of systems, everyone  should anticipate that a change in one part of the system will produce changes in other system components. The more interdependent your organization is with another the more interaction you can expect to occur.  This phenomenon is known as the butterfly effect or essentially ‘where you start – the initial conditions – makes a major difference to where you end up’ (Pisapia, 2009). When the team started by analyzing the problem they were led down a path that led to chaos for a time.  If they had started from a holistic perspective they would have had their answer and their path towards its accomplishment.

A third lesson is highlighted by Capra (2002) who says that in order to understand something, one begins by putting it into a larger context rather than take it apart. In this view, systems thinking is contextual. A key characteristic of systems thinking is the ability to shift one’s attention back and forth between systems levels. The team lacked this ability. Therefore their first recommendation was shot down. Their frustrations took them on a roller coaster ride for a while as they regrouped, sought new information, approached the problem differently, and came up with a much broader understanding of the problem and its implementation (Haines, 2000, p.270).

A fourth lesson is taken from the capacity of a system to self-correct by adjusting to feedback.  Positive feedback enables a system to maintain its behavior while negative feedback prompts the system to adapt. The team received feedback several times. The first feedback they received indicated that there was a problem with cost margins for the computer. They responded by finding the cause – an over-weighted screw – they redesigned the flaw and got the effect they thought they were seeking. Then they got their second feedback.  The solution had consequences for the rest of the systems that were not considered. They used this feedback to draw up a much more acceptable solution.

Finally, leaders and teams need to shift from a linear thinking mindset to a systems thinking mindset. As Senge (1990) stated leaders must: (a) perceive interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and (b) understand change as a process rather than an event. This shift enables leaders and teams to shift from seeing elements, structures, functions, and events to seeing processes and interrelationships.
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