“More of the same, faster” has been the primary approach to production efficiency for centuries, from factory production lines to wide-acre mono-crop farming.
However, process myopia comes with consequences:
- When you only look at the efficiency of an individual process, then you stop seeing the systems it is part of. When you lose sight of the system, you lose the best opportunities to optimise its operation.
- When you focus in on processes, you can also create create flawed performance measures that generate perverse behaviours. In factories, only measuring machine throughput leads to machines being run with minimum maintenance downtime and bigger batch sizes to reduce changeovers. The process might be “efficient” – but the costs to the business of machine failures and excess stock makes a big impact on the function of the business as a system.
- Process efficiency preoccupations can also stop us questioning the overall design of products, services and the built environment. It can lead us to focus on minimising the power consumed by domestic air-conditioning – instead of double insulating or applying passive design principles to create a self-cooling home.
Before you “fix” a process, explore the system
Every process is part of a system – a system that has goals. Every system also has resource stocks, flows and bottlenecks.. Business is full of systems with non-obvious feedback loops and complex patterns of human behaviour.
Looking at a process without understanding the systems it’s part of is like trying to watch a football game without knowing the rules of the game. You won’t understand why soccer players don’t touch the ball with their hands, or why AFL players get cheered for taking a high mark.
Before we understood fully how ecological systems functioned, we blithely introduced rabbits and cane toads into Australia.
An ability to see the systems in play can be a great advantage, whether you’re trying to reduce excess inventory, carbon emissions or homelessness.
Systems examples – large and small
An innovation team from carpet manufacturer Interface were tasked with reducing the environmental impact of dyeing woven carpet. One engineer on the team took a closer look at one tufting machine (that made the carpet) and found that it could be programmed to use multiple yarn colours. That took the environmental impact of dyeing TOTALLY out of the plant – affordably.
A systems thinking for social change project on homelessness identified that – over the long term – homeless shelters did nothing to reduce homelessness. Shelters simply made the homeless less visible and homelessness marginally less uncomfortable. Because the process included and educated a broad spectrum of providers in it’s problem-solving, agreement was reached to focus funding on supported housing rather than more shelters.
The Systems Thinking toolset
Systems aren’t new – humans have been building systems for millenia – often with failures and unexpected consequences. What we have today is access to an organised toolset to help us do it better and more easily AND with fewer unexpected consequences.
Systems Thinking is a discipline that’s emerged from multiple sources as a tool to deal with the increasingly complex modern world. It has roots everywhen from biology to cybernetics and applications from Just-In-Time manufacturing to Learning Organisations.
It can be used to understand and generate change in the behaviour of human systems as well as physical systems.
The power of leverage
What skilled practitioners have found is that – when carefully and fully explored – systems thinking will uncover leverage points where a small shift in behaviour can lead to a big change in results.
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