Thursday, December 29, 2005

Quality - Complex Process Problems Require Complex Process Solutions

Many of the Quality type conversations I have almost always ends with the frustrations of not being able to correctly articulate, or communicate the importance of “Systems Thinking” in solving complex process/system problems.

"Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

With every problem comes an opportunity. I can think of no better example that can relate the importance of “Systems Thinking” (Systems Thinking) that plague most business and educational organizations. They continue to confront the failure of improving complex independent systems that should be interdependent systems.

When complex processes/systems fail, traditional ways of thinking and managing simply will not correct the problem. You need to be able to identify these types of failures and address them accordingly.


I have found in my work that identifying complex system failures can be accomplished by recognizing the following characteristics:

· The longer they are left unattended, the more vast their effects.
· Costs always surpasses what has been budgeted to correct the situation.
· As effects emerge, unknown interdependencies rise to the top like a bad penny.
· The more that problems come into focus, the more complex they become.
· Past experience with simple systems no longer apply.
· Root causes and their effects are impossible to identify, track and control.

These characteristics identify the most troubling realization about complex systemic problems: They are inherently uncontrollable. They cannot be understood completely either before or even while they are happening; therefore, prediction and control are impossible. Conventional means of managing and problem solving will not work.

One example I think about at this time of the year was the Y2K problem and how it impacted every organization knee deep in IT type integrated code. What we realized was the Y2K problem wasn’t just about software and the lines of code that had been hastily written 5, 10, 30 years ago that did not recognize the 00 date. It was also about the microchips implanted in so many items (i.e. PCs, appliances, utilities, etc.) that affect our day-to-day lives that also would not recognize the new century. Likewise, many of the provisioning processes could not be sectionalized and managed independently by multiple departments. It took take a systemic concentrated effort by a number of groups actively working together to solve the problems.

Conventional reporting structures and old-style power relations have also contributed to complex system failures. A certain amount of honesty and partnership must take place among process owners when addressing complex system problems. Review the following statement from the eyes of a senior leader. How would you respond if a subject matter expert came to you and said, “I need your best people to work on the Y2K problem and it will probably cost over a million dollars, and one more thing, we won’t be able to work on any other productivity problems.” Now what usually happens is the problem will be filtered as it is passed up the chain of command, leaders will state that everything is under control out of fear of being fired. Would the example have been any different if the provisioning process were used instead of the Y2K problem.

Old trends, past practices, and inappropriate problem solving methods (i.e. tampering) make it impossible to understand the failures of complex processes/systems.


We have created an environment of complex processes/systems that require new methodologies to unravel existing entangled interdependencies. In order to reverse the trend, complex systems require unity, participation, and honesty to data, information and internal partnerships. These types of system problems require us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, internal competition, conflicting management objectives and silence out of fear.

The failure of any complex process/system can’t be adequately addressed through functional organizational structures or by a few internal/external consultants injecting their expertise into the system. Only those who work within the system know its inner workings. They are the only ones who know how to work around the systems when they fail. Thus, implementing solutions to system wide or cross-functional processes requires practices that secure the knowledge and expertise throughout the entire system/process (this may also include experts outside the traditional boundaries of the organization). Complex system problems like provisioning require unmatched levels of participation just to understand what is going on in the process.

It is vital that senior leaders provide the focus for implementing a process that identifies the players required for developing solutions to critical customer affecting processes. For example, what can be done to promote easier access so workers can reach each other quickly? What procedures, policies, boundaries, or functional territories need to be demolished now so workers can talk honestly and skillfully without the umbrella of politics or bureaucracy hanging over their heads?

Business Leaders and Academic Administrators need to develop a new mindset for addressing complex process/system problems. Margaret Wheately of the Berkana Institute suggests the following:

· Engage the whole system. Only participation can save you.
· Continuously keep asking, “Who else should be involved?”
· Create abundant information and circulate it through existing and new channels (dedicated Web sites or Intranets).
· Develop simple reporting systems that can generate information quickly and broadcast it easily.
· Develop quality relationships as a top priority. Trust is the greatest asset.
· Support collaboration. Competition destroys capacity.
· Demolish boundaries and territories. Push for openness everywhere.
· Focus on creating new, streamlined processes/systems. There is no going back.

I would like to add one more, “Don’t force change, and rather create the conditions for change to take place.” I have often heard, ‘what we need around here are leaders who will drive change.” Leaders cannot drive change by themselves, just as I can’t stand on my deck next spring and order my garden to grow three inches every day. However, if I create an environment where the conditions are correct and I take an “active” part in nurturing it, there stands a pretty good chance that growth and change will happen in a predictable time frame.

When facing complex process/system problems, leaders need to create the conditions for the appropriate groups to come together that will identify the system interdependencies. Boundaries need to be removed and hierarchies mean nothing. Surrender control and create partnerships of shared responsibility. Abolish internal competition and support people in developing system wide solutions and contingencies that will ensure customer satisfaction.

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