“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” – W. Edwards Deming
As a leader, how well do you understand how your organization works? Do you have a good picture of the relationships and interconnections that exist both inside and outside that enable the company to operate? I’m not sure it’s possible to truly grasp all of the complexities within an operation, but the more a leader understands about the overall system, the more effective improvement efforts will be to reduce waste and improve performance.
W. Edwards Deming wrote about the importance of understanding the system in Out of the Crisis and The New Economics, and what it means to leadership and transformation. At first glance, it’s easy to miss the significance of the message Deming was trying to convey because of the assumed simplicity of the system diagram he referred to so often. A common response after first seeing the diagram is, of course an organization consists of processes working together to produce a product or service . . . so what?
Anyone who has attempted to draw a system diagram of their own organization quickly learns the significance of the exercise. It becomes obvious pretty quickly how many interactions exist and how complex the system truly is. During an exercise like this, I’ve seen some of the most stalwart nonbelievers begin to realize that quality and performance is the result of the system –i.e., management’s responsibility – rather than individual workers. In many cases, those working on the diagram become impressed that people are actually able to perform given all of the barriers that the system creates.
Other important aspects of leadership that become evident when systems thinking begins to take hold include:
- the importance of flow to the success of the organization, as well as some of the areas that impede flow the most;
- how individual functions tend to work against, rather than with, each other within the system, and how detrimental it is to serving customers;
- the importance of internal customers and suppliers and how critical it is to improving quality and productivity;
- a better comprehension of all of the organization’s stakeholders and why they matter to overall success;
- a much clearer picture of what adds value to the overall system and what does not.
Organizations are in a constant state of change and, although it is not possible to completely understand all of the interrelationships that exist, it is important to appreciate how critical continually improving the interactions is to overall performance. It also becomes evident that promoting leaders who have this level of appreciation and never stop attempting to learn about and improve the system is important to the company’s long-term success.