Bringing Systems Literacy To Your Workplace

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“We are ISO 9001 certified. We know our systems, they are all documented”, she argued.

 “We have the state-of-the-art IT systems”, he argued. “We just upgraded our systems, we know all about systems”, he asserted.

 “This mobility plan is the best system. We’ve replicated it from the best practices across the world”, he said proudly.

“Our supply chain systems are just-in-time and allow us to save costs”, she explained.

“We have world-class HR systems that allow us to hire only the best”, she told the candidates.

“Our financial systems can handle a million transactions in a minute”, the banker told the customer.

Yet, they all have employees who feel overworked, underpaid.

They all have customers who are dissatisfied. They all have suppliers who feel stretched and beaten. They all have promises they have broken. They fight their frustrations by suppressing criticism calling it negativity. They are all stressed. Many even have health problems caused by overwork and stress.

They all claim to know about systems. In fact, they all believe to have the best systems. They all recognize systems as the parts they saw, had control over, or wanted to change. 

If these are systems, these are the best systems, these are even systems they had control over, why do they have the problems that do not go away? Problems that keep coming back periodically. Problems that always needed upgrades to make the “system” cope or just hide the symptom? Yet, why is the result of their actions often counter-intuitive, making the problems worse? Or why does it take so long for the system to respond to their efforts to steer it in a different direction? Why does it seem that the solution was working before it really made things worse? Why are they all hiding that the newest problem was the result of the best solution flaunted just some time back? Why does the all their hurry result in slower changes?

Yet, they feel they are in control because they are put in charge. They feel powerful because they make decisions. Yet they are powerless. 

They are all systems illiterate.

The system is the whole that results from the interactions of the parts. 

The system is not the parts that we see, describe, or wield power over. Whether intervening in human resources, supply chain, manufacturing, marketing, finance, operations, or even information, few recognize that it is worthless to do so unless the interactions of these with the other parts can result in the whole system that we desire. Few recognize we are part of the systems that we participate in, we are not the system. The parts do not have the properties of the whole that make the whole functional and invaluable. The parts cannot accomplish the purpose that the whole can. We cannot accomplish the common purpose of the whole without aligning with other actors in the systems we are a part of.

Without systems literacy we focus on the short term. The short term is usually the time it takes for us to see change in the parts that we intervene. The Short Now is the time it takes for change to endure in a system. Is it any surprise that we are addicted to the short term?

Systems literacy helps us to recognize the wholes that we are a part of and the common purposes we share with other actors in each of these wholes. It helps us to share the common purpose of the whole with the other actors of that system. It helps us to create an alignment of the parts to the purpose of the whole. It provides us the context for actions, many of which turn out to be counter intuitive. It provides a means to recognize the causes for the problem, not merely notice the symptoms. It empowers each system to have leadership that is respectful, caring and protective of all the actors in the system. It transcends politics to wisdom.

Repeatedly ask what are the wholes that you are a part of.

For there are many different systems that you are a part of. Recognize the wholes by the common purposes for which it’s the actors in its parts have come together. Share your understanding of the system with other actors within your system.

Meditate on your common purposes with the other actors participating in our system. Let the common purpose serve as the basis to align you and the other actors in your system.

Search for causes to problems by looking at the whole, not the symptoms. Find places to intervene to accomplish the purpose, not remove the symptoms. Transform your systems from indifference and apathy to those that are caring, enthusiastic and alive.

Bring systems literacy to your workplace.



#All views expressed in this column are the authors and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them. 

Anupam Saraph

Anupam Saraph

Dr. Anupam Saraph grew up in a Pune that was possibly a tenth of its current expanse and every road was lined by 200 year old trees. He’s committed to the cause of de-addicting the short-termers.

He can be reached @AnupamSaraph
Anupam Saraph

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