Systems Thinking and Brain Surgery

If you haven’t read Dr. Russ Ackoff, you should. I’ve recently become acquainted with Dr. Ackoff’s work. I was immediately drawn to him because he reminds me so much of my Dad. He, like my father, is an architect by trade. He’s also a systems thinker and a leader in his heart. He inspired this post and the examples within, and I want to share something I learned from both of them.

Think about the system, the whole, when leading change.

As leaders survey organizations in need of change, they will often take a reductionist view. They break the organization into tiny pieces and look at those pieces to find problems. When found, they set about solving local problems and optimizing each individual piece. And who could blame them! This is how we are taught to problem solve. Break it down. Focus on each piece. I can almost hear my 7th grade algebra teacher as I write this.

The problem is that long term, effective solutions to issues occurring in complex systems (ie our organizations) rarely come from fixing mere components. Awkwardly, the opposite is more likely. (optimizing a part tends to sub-optimize the whole) To make matters worse, most system issues arise in parts of the whole that are completely unrelated to the actual issue. The solution to that problem often needs to be addressed far away from where the symptom is actually occurring.

Take the “system” of the human body, and the “symptom” of a headache. When you have a headache, the issue causing the headache is rarely caused by the head. If I have a headache, I can take aspirin or drink lots of water, which typically alleviates the headache. What I don’t do is brain surgery. Why? Because it’s not the problem…the symptom of the real issue is occurring in the head, but the head is not the issue.

What is the typical response from most organizations that are experiencing the proverbial headache? You guessed it – brain surgery.

Quality is low – the code is crap…builds keeps failing. Bugs are everywhere!

In the case above, the knee jerk, “brain surgery-style” solution is…? It MUST be the developers! We need to ride those darn developers until they get it right! (or worse, we need new developers!)

This is not fiction, it is sadly typical. My suggestions for situations like this is directly related to values espoused by Lean and Systems Thinking. “Go and See”. Map the value stream and see how the work works. Look for bottlenecks, gaps, workarounds. Ask tough questions and gain some insight. Look at the entire system as a whole. Learn about your systems, the people, their process, and more importantly their pain. You might be shocked what a little understanding will yield. It might just save you the painful recovery of brain surgery.


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