Archive for the ‘Systems Thinking’ Category

Systems Thinking

03/11/2010

It all started when I read The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge. I was inspired to read it after my brilliant previous colleague Pat Kua did a workshop on Systems Thinking. (Dennis Stevens wrote a better summary about this book than I will ever be able to.)

I then continued by reading Freedom from Command & Control by John Seddon as well as attended a presentation from John Seddon on the same topic. While Peter Senge’s book was a very interesting read – John Seddon’s was the easiest one to grasp and the one that really opened my eyes.

Seddon brilliantly shows how the wrong targets and measurements encourage the wrong behaviour and creates what he calls failure demand. Furthermore managers and governments sometimes specifies how people should execute their work – with the intention that these processes will then produce the best results. However, as you probably already know – it rarely does – and leads to poor results and demotivated people. Especially managing cost often leads to sub-optimizations which is not good for the end result. (I find some of this is a good match with the Beyond budgeting movement.)

I would love to use some of Seddon’s own examples to convince you, but I would encourage you to read his book instead. I will try however, to give you a few examples of where I have recognized these patterns in IT projects myself:

Managing cost:
Many IT projects seem to be managed on cost. This sometimes leads to testing only being applied at the end of a project (because that should mean less man hours needed for testing.) This obviously leads to bugs only being found at the end of the project. The later you find the bugs – the harder it is to fix them – and the more expensive you can argue it is to fix them. One of the reasons they are expensive to fix later would be that the developers might have forgotten everything about that area in the code base – the ones who wrote the code might even be gone. Also there is a huge risk that parts of the application might have to be redesigned etc.. So by managing cost – and trying to reduce the cost of one part of a process – the total cost of the project might end up higher than what it could have been had the testing started day one.. One should look at the project as a whole and not try to optimize parts of it independently. And while you are at it – does the project itself make sense at all – if you look at it from a Systems perspective?

Targets and failure demand:
Measuring velocity is common in Agile projects these days. In Kanban you would often measure cycle time. The problem however, is that we rarely get to measure this end to end. I.e. from when the customer requests a feature until he actually starts using it. Let’s say you only measure cycle time from when a developer picks up a story until it is ready for System Test. The developer might have to make the story pass a few unit and acceptance tests, but bugs found later in the process might be raised as new bug stories. Hence in terms of the statistics it does not make sense for the developer to go that extra mile and build in the amount of quality needed for the story to pass System Testing. The developer keeps coding at a high speed – while new bugs are raised. From a Systems Thinking point of view – i.e. from the end customers point of view – this of course does not make sense. The bugs are essentially failure demand – and reducing the failure demand would probably allow the user to get to use his (bug-free) features earlier and cheaper.

To fix this, you should start by looking at the System that encouraged this behaviour in the first place. Namely remove the targets that created local optimizations. From a Systems Thinking perspective it is not the developer’s fault that he produced a lot of bugs – it was the targets he was measured on. So is it his manager’s fault then? Well, maybe, but how is she measured then?

Compliance:
Starting out with Agile – you might try to follow the book – and hence end up doing for instance estimation. I.e. Scrum and XP says we should do estimation – if it doesn’t work for us – then we are probably doing something wrong so we should read some more about Scrum and see how we could do estimation better.

Wait a minute – if estimation doesn’t give you anything – then you shouldn’t do it! Blindly believing in processes or measuring people on compliance – is not the way to get the good results. The important thing is the end result – not how you got there.

Eye opener
What I realized as many have before me, is that all these different tools, CI, pair programming, estimation, 7 types of waste, product owners etc. are all just tools. You should use them if they make sense in your context, but don’t use them just for the sake of it. It is not like Kanban is always better than Scrum. It is not like stand-ups is something you have to do. It is not like IT is the solution to every problem. It is not like people are stupid just because they do stupid things – they are to a certain extent a product of the system. Reflect on your end goal. Learn to see underlying structures. You will be amazed!

Is this it then?
No it is not. I believe I have finally learned by know – that whenever I discover a better theory or a better tool – there is always something better waiting for me around the next corner. Take a look at Jurgen Appelo’s stuff on Complex Systems or the Chaordic Mindset in Bob Marshall’s the Marshall Model of Organisational Evolution for instance.

Disclaimer
There is much more to Systems Thinking – and I have only barely started to understand it. Feedback is more than welcome!

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