The Superhighway System of Organizational Reality: A Metaphor for Systems Thinking in Organizations

highwayMerging on to the interstate, blinker flashing and speed accelerating, I glide into my lane, becoming one with my fellow travelers. Some of us are headed toward the same event and will exit in a line, one after the other. Some will keep going and still others will realize they’ve missed their exit and have to reroute. Thanks, President Eisenhower, for championing America’s interstate highway system!

I’ve traveled to cities that seem to consider traffic laws as optional, and lanes are mere suggestions as drivers blare their horns as they dodge through intersections. When we first arrived in Tehran when I was in high school, our taxi driver even took “shortcuts” through parking lots and down alleys. He felt a sense of urgency we hadn’t communicated, almost as if he couldn’t deposit us to our front door fast enough!

Interstate and road design is meant to get us from one place to another in a somewhat orderly and efficient fashion. On ramps and off ramps, connections to and from other arteries, construction zones and speed traps, and changing rates of speed describe the transportation system, and also serve as a fitting metaphor for our workplace systems.

A key principle in human performance technology is systems thinking – an acknowledgement of the multifaceted and simultaneous activities within an organization that turn inputs into outputs through processes and channels. When looking for ways to close performance gaps it’s essential to think about the whole system, expanding the focus to see what might be a symptom of a larger issue.

The London Underground (Tube) system was introduced in the 1860s as a solution to the city’s overly congested streets. Hailing the first underground railway system (1863), greater London now has 270 stations that move travelers to all parts of the city with relative ease. But it wasn’t always this way.

For decades, competing rail companies dug their lines underground, moving people on a fairly straight path from one end of the city to another. Commuters would often have to exit one station from Line A and walk to another line to continue their journey. This made the underground experience almost as inconvenient as the above-ground transport.

Then, in 1933, a new entity was created that merged all of the competitors into a single organization. With this coordinated effort, Tube travel became much more efficient and consistent. The subterranean, geographical map of the Tube system was very difficult to read, until Harry Beck created a simplified (although geographically interpretive) map that was easy to follow.

Having a roadmap to explain and simplify the system is essential. Following the system is also required – from everyone…until a better system is discovered and adopted!

When I visited Beijing in 2012, one of my contacts told me about a traffic jam that lasted for 10 days in August, 2010 (check out the story on Wikipedia). Because of the vast number of automobiles and trucks trying to get in and out of Beijing every day, a schedule is required to avoid snarls. Commuters are allowed to enter the city on specific days, and delivery vehicles cannot enter the city before certain times, usually during the night.

As the story goes, some delivery truck drivers grew impatient and decided to make their way toward the inner city through construction. This caused such a wide-spread pandemonium that some drivers were stuck for up to five days, only able to move .6 miles per day.

We experience similar snarls in our organizations when we don’t follow our own processes. Our systems are only as good as our willingness and ability to follow them, and when individuals or departments insist on forging ahead without consideration for the consequences, the system breaks down completely and we get stuck for long periods of time.

Peter Senge, a thought leader in organizational systems and learning says,

Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.

To avoid organizational traffic jams, leaders need to keep the whole system in mind and commit to designing and following processes that keep things running smoothly. One department, and one leader, can’t make a decision without considering the impact on up- and down-stream stakeholders. Retrofitting new processes into old systems also causes inefficiency and mayhem. There must be a collaborative effort to co-create and co-repair the system.

When performance falls short of expectations, at the individual, workgroup or organizational levels, there must be a systems approach for discovering the gaps and contributors to those gaps. I often use the example from a call center client, who was addressing a serious problem with average handle time (AHT) for one of its products. Why were employees from one site able to meet the AHT goal while another site chronically fell short?

The assumption was that it came down to employee training and behavior (attitude). A refresher class was needed to remind employees of the steps that would ensure AHT goals were achieved. As employees sat through the refresher, however, my trainer noticed something…the employees were following the steps, but the system had a critical lag that slowed them down.

We can train, coach, and discipline employees when they don’t perform as expected, but we are being unfair when we hold them to impossible performance goals. We have to get a wider frame of reference before we jump in with solutions and make sure we’ve considered all possible contributions to the issue. Yes, training may be needed, but why else is possible? A technology issue? A supervisory problem? A policy that doesn’t make sense?

To understand and benefit from organizational systems we must learn to see through lenses other than our own. As processes are created and revised, decisions are made, or technology implemented, a consideration for the whole system is crucial to success. What impact will a course of action have on…

  • Marketing?
  • Sales?
  • Human resources?
  • Customer service?
  • Information Technology?
  • The community?

Systems thinking doesn’t mean we have to become experts in every area or learn to think like every possible stakeholder, but it does require an awareness that these entities and individuals exist. And we must learn to build social networks outside of our own areas of expertise to leverage the insights and factors bearing on the organization.

Managers are the engineers of workplace systems, creating the traffic flow, the signage, and rest stops that keep organizational drivers safe, focused, and able to navigate to their destination. Peak performance happens in our organizations when we think about the best routes to get our enterprise from Point A to Point B, and consider the many possible scenarios that could interfere with the flow.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Peter Drucker said, Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes. The knowledge within any system is only as powerful as the attention it is given. Pay attention to your systems as you would a map on an unknown interstate before GPS!

   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *