July 30, 2009

The idea of system

In the past few weeks has been a really good period for me. I am reading stuff but I also find myself thinking about things, and understanding more about organisations, inter-personal behviors and so on. When I have these 'insights' i like to write them on blog immediately fearing they would quickly slip away. Doing so also help me clear thinking, analyse situations and so on... but I am not sure whether these ideas have any real value to others. They do to me though.

Anyway, building on my previous entry about defensive reasoning. I just like to relate it to the idea of "system" which W.Edward Deming use as a concept for explaining why problems in organisation occur. His use of word "system" is abit differnt from another well known author Peter Senge's System thinking. Whereas Senge refers to system as a way of making sense of the causal relationship between different events and therefore argue sometimes, what people think to be the cause  (cause #1) of a problem could have a underlying (unobvious) cause (cause #2) as the result of our action taken on cause #1.  The number of causes can of course be as many as you like depending on the complexity of the problem (situation). The point is our action may inadvertently agrevate the cause of the very problem we try to eliminate because of the circularity in the cause and effect. He use the example of US invasion of Iraq

US perceive Middle Eastern threat -> American take military action -> Middle East perceive US threat -> Muslim take militar action  -> US perceive greater Middle Eastern threat -> so on and so forth

 But Deming's idea of system is slightly different. It's more about the difference between superficial causes and underlying causes. They are not necessarily in circularity like Senge's idea. But rather superficial causes are the result of underlying cause. The underlying cause is a broken system. Let me illustrate with an personal example I experienced yesterday.

I went to see Paul Robert for not receiving feedback on my KBAM assignment. It was not to be found on the network or on Paul's personal computer. Long story short. It was probably never received by the WMG department yet somehow submission was recorded as "received" and Paul marked "something" and gave me a mark. I followed the entire event and I thought about how complex the entire system was from student submission, admins recording receipt, making copies, send to tutors, tutors send to tunitin, mark assignment, making different files for recording marks, send marks and feedback back to admin, admin send feedback to student... and so on. If there was any error in the process (by the student, admin, or the tutor) it would have resulted in delays. Sounds like a broken system that need process improvement?  ... haha... I think so.  But the thing is I think throughout the entire incident, everyone seemed to be quite happy with the way the system works. They try to go to the bottom and find the cause. They check IT, check student's record, tutor's records, somehow the cause is there "somewhere" and "we just haven't found it yet".  But has anyone ever wondered why such error occur? and as far as I know from the admin, not just infrequently.  As a student, I think I can say for myself that the submission system is WAY too complicated to use. There is even a dummy mechanism for you to PRACTICE submission.... now having need to practice SUBMISSION is quite strange to some people.  Does it really need to be this complex?

Now I think there is a rationale behind all this. Need for control, and need for back up. As we learned in books and classes. Excessive control leads to bureacracy. As people find more and more need to have check points , the longer the chain of commands, and the greater the ineffciency is likely to result. The idea of backing up is good, system engineering RDD right? but any additional back up system impose a cost. And in organisations, this cost in time, and money being wasted on the the process of making an copy "just in case".  Okay, I know I sound terrrrrrribly like books and consultant... maybe I have been reading too much that I have been 'converted', but yeah something worth thinking about.

Funnily whenever such errors occur we tend to be very tolerant if it was a fault of customers. We would say "let's make things more user friendly so that customer won't make the same mistake twice!" (although not every organisation positive thinker like this). Whenever such errors occur within organisation, we tend to be very intolerant of our employee. Insisiting such problem arise because employee did not do job properly, overlooked certain things, not trained properly (then the blame goes to managers), or whatever.


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