Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The "Larger System" Pattern

Frequently a systems engineer does her best work when considering the larger system into which a given system fits. When that systems engineer is working on processes, an interesting pattern seems to occur.

Suppose the systems engineer is asked to look at the process for filing off rough edges of widgets. Faithfully she looks into what makes the filing difficult currently, and tries to come up with ideas to make the filing more efficient and effective. However, she is also thinking "outside the box," as a good systems engineer should, and eventually asks why filing is necessary at all? What causes the rough edges?

Investigating the tools that are used, she finds some reasons that rough edges are created in the first place. Looking into it, she discovers that a cheaper tool was purchased to make the widgets than one that would have made rounded edges. But selling the current tool and getting the better tool wouldn't solve the whole problem, only part of the problem.

The real problem is that the manager who purchased the tool couldn't think ahead to operations and maintenance and instead thought only of the purchase price. Maybe she should create some training for managers about logistics. But wait, that wouldn't fix the real problem!

After all, the managers were under tight cost constraints. The real problem is that their managers didn't free up enough funds or funding vehicles so that the employees of the company could do their jobs with an eye to the future. They were so tied to Wall Street's demand that they produce profits every quarter that they couldn't do what is right for the health of the company. How can she fix this problem?

See the problem? Every problem is a sub-problem to a bigger problem. Yet the small problems are problems the systems engineer could actually do something about. If you keep looking for bigger problems because the solutions to the smaller problems won't be lasting solutions without solving the bigger problems, you run the risk of a) not solving anything, b) becoming embroiled in a problem far above your pay grade, or c) putting all your effort into tasks that are so far in the future that the future changes before your solution is implemented.

It's a delicate balance to solve enough of a problem. Don't get stuck thinking your solution doesn't mean enough unless you solve the bigger problem.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead
Similarly, in these days of hugely complex problems and solutions, a fast solution may win out over a better thought-out but slower solution. Do something important now!

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