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Systems Thinking - the piecesSunday, November 30, 2014

Marty Neumeier defines seeing, or systems thinking, as “the ability to contemplate the whole, not just the parts.” (Metaskills, p. 88, hardcover version).

However you call it, systems thinking, forest for the trees. holistic thinking, you need to contemplate not just the details but look from a bigger picture to understand what is happening. I would add one other thing: you need to look at both details and the big picture.

He covers a lot of ground, most of which is not specifically skill related but more of why you should look at the whole rather than the pieces. Some topics he touches on are:

1. Either/Or fallacy

2. Looking at the whole

3. Latency Trap

4. The Long Picture

5. Role of purpose and ethics

There’s a lot going on here and as usual, I will have to think over these. I might come back and change, add, or subtract to the list of 5 as I think more on this chapter and how it relates to skills needed for the Robot Age.

But he does have a lot of good slings against the corporate world.

As a side note to this, I heard about systems thinking back in the ’80’s or ’90’s through Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline. While he is more about learning, a large part of his learning consists of system thinking. This may be a good place to see how to develop systems thinking.

Meanwhile, I’m doing a lot of drawing to develop my “seeing” skills. Ha ha.

Systems Thinking - from pieces to wholeSystems thinking - whole
Like most people we only see parts of the picture.
















Sunday, December 14, 2014 Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

[I have been pretty busy so I haven’t been able to do anything in this section.]

This “seeing” section is probably going to be mostly about how and why one must look at the whole picture rather than outlining a discrete set of skills for solving big problems. The main skill is looking at the whole and “seeing” things as they are, not what you think or wish they are. Metaskills opens up this chapter with a discussion on drawing: when most of us draw, we draw what we think we know, not what we actually see, especially in regards to perspectives and relationships of parts to the whole. This is why a lot of people’s drawing are flat.

They say anybody can draw and I think it is true for the most part. Still, it is very hard to really “see” your subject and draw a likeness, especially portraits.

The chapter also delves into the tyranny of Or. We like things simple so we tend to gravitate toward the either/or thinking. But because of our desire for simple answers, we can be easily manipulated.

Remember or recognize these?

* “If you are not with us, you are against us.”

* “If you favor charter schools, you are against public schools.”

* “If you are for gun control, you are against personal freedom.”

* “If you are a capitalist, you are against the environment.”

* “If you support abortion rights, you must be anti-life.”

* “If you want universal health care, you want socialism.”

* “If an idea is new, it must be risky.”

From Metaskills by Marty Neumeier, page 92, hardcover version.

This either/or mindset is what is creating our current Congress, with its inaction and bickering. The author did bring up something scary: every time a nation got into an either/or mindset, it inevitably went into decline. He based this finding from research found in a book by Rebecca Costa – The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking our Way out of Extinction.

So, the author says the way out of this is to use “And”. He is not talking about compromise but about utilizing solutions from both sides of the argument. It can’t be both sides digging in, which is what we have today. I would add that the solution might have to be something altogether different from “And” but somehow encompasses the viewpoints of both sides. Why do I say that? Well, I always had a problem with the statement that you could have both high quality and low-cost. Businessmen used to propound that philosophy in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I had my doubts about it. To me, it seemed like another excuse for  keeping wages down. And now, twenty, thirty years later, we have high inequality. Just saying.

So the “seeing” skill is to suspend your belief or “knowledge” and see things as they are. You need to open up your mind to other viewpoints in order to come up with an “And” solution. Since the Industrial Age, we’ve been trained to break things apart and solve the pieces. Think about the scientific method with its research on a tiny piece of the problem. Or look at how industrial industries broke up jobs into smaller repetitive tasks. Now we need to learn to step back and integrate the pieces – to learn how the whole works.




Sunday, December 21, 2014

Okay, I only meant to take out a piece and then put it back in. But the whole thing fell apart and I don’t have the instructions to put it back together again. This was a puzzle and looking at the picture, or even a single piece, you can’t tell what the puzzle should look like.

And that’s the trouble with breaking down problems into pieces – we sometimes lose sight of the whole. We are taught to approach things by piecemeal. Got a big problem or project to solve. Break it down into pieces. Getting too overwhelmed by how much to do? Just take small bites.

The problem with that advice is that people are losing sight of the whole picture. When they get overwhelmed, they go to email because that is the smallest and easiest bite of problem to chew on. But it’s really not the most important – it’s busy work.

I once had a boss who would grind away at the details. One day I was training someone on how to pull together a $6 million invoice. She came in and wanted me to do correcting journal entries for roughly 20 items, none greater than $1000. I told her that I would handle in the morning (it was closing onto midnight). She lost sight of the immateriality of her request. Fortunately, I had just moved to another area, so I could tell her that I was doing it in the morning after getting some sleep.

We have a lot of problems such as growing inequality, population, environmental degradation, health threats, computer threats and so on. Some of these problems could very well be the result of man looking at a piece of the problem rather than the whole. Industrialization spawned massive ugliness but we seem to have moved on past the smokestack period. Capitalism might need to be rethought in the face of growing inequality. With coming onslaught of the Robot Age, we might need to rethink the meaning of work.







Monday, December 29, 2014

This is going to be short and sweet as I’m running out of time after having to deal with PC issues.

So far, some ways of seeing into the big problems are 1) getting past the either/or and using the “and”, and 2) looking at the big picture, not just the tiny part of the issue you are seeing. You also have to take into account time effect. You may have implemented a solution to a problem but are not seeing any results, but that is because there is a delay in the feedback on what happens. The author used the example of adjusting the water temperature in the shower: first the water is cold so you adjust the heat but no reaction happens so you bring on more heat until all of a sudden, scalding heat comes out.

A business example would be drastically cutting headcount, including some of your senior people, during a downturn. You get a short-term boost in profits and you think you solved a problem. But when the economy turns around, and it always does, you lack the senior expertise to help take advantage of the turnaround. Although not mentioned, they are now working for your competitors. Oops! I once worked for a company that stopped making investments in the infrastructure and greatly delayed payments to their suppliers. Management crowed about how they alone were making a profit while everyone else were losing money. This was during the period after the Enron crash. I told my friend that the other companies were probably continuing critical investments, cleaning up their balance sheets, and doing other appropriate actions so as to be ready to grab the opportunity when the economy got better. Sure enough, when the economy got better, my company did not last long. Fortunately I had left.




The Long View
To get to the moon, people had to train for very many years in their specialty.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Latency is about the delayed feedback and is tied in very tightly to the long view. In order to solve problems and implement solutions, you need to consider the long view. Because of the latency problem, you need to take the long view and ask yourself, “What would be the consequences down the road if I took this action today?” A lot of us are very short-term focus and the internet has only exacerbated this inclination.

Yesterday, I read an article in The Atlantic dated January 2, 2015 about “What’s Wrong with Georgia?” It describes the impact on employment after slashing taxes and reducing spending. While the economy appears to be turning around with unemployment rates declining around the country, Georgia is still mired in the Great Recession. The author attributes this dismal showing to some of the harshest actions taken around the country. It’s been named as one of the best places to do business in the US but it also has one of the worst unemployment rates. Georgia is described as “basically a low-wage, low-tax, low-service state”. They didn’t get here overnight: the state took specific actions that led to this current denouement.

Link to fascinating article is here.

This is more of the same consequences of short-term thinking. Metaskills has lots of examples. Here are is a choice quote:

A company is hit by an industry downturn and its profits begin to sag. It reacts quickly by laying off a number of highly paid senior employees. While this solves the immediate problem, the talent starved company falls behind its competitors just as the economy picks up.   Metaskills, p. 102, hardcover.


Sounds very familiar. Think manufacturing. Think of my old company that crashed and burned. Think this is where Georgia is headed.


Sunday, January 11, 2015 Ethics and Purpose

So, seeing is really systems thinking where you look at the whole rather than the parts of the system. Big picture thinking rather than small picture mindset. The problems we have now are going to require big picture thinking because a change in the system somewhere could have an adverse impact elsewhere. And due to the latency factor, we need to include the long-term impact, not just the short-term.

But all of this is moot if we don’t have ethics or good purposes. Consider this quote:

“It’s useless to blame the collapse of the banking industry on individual executives or specific events. The very structure of the banking system is to blame, since it’s tilted in favor of corrupt actors and selfish behaviors. Therefore, we might think about redesigning the system so corruption is not so easy or profitable. Or we might make improvements to the larger system in which it operates, say capitalism itself. We might even question the cultural norms and beliefs that gave rise to 20th century capitalism in the first place.” Metaskills, Marty Neumeier, pg 98, hardback version.


Even he is questioning the kind of capitalism we have now. The kind of capitalism we have now is very short-term and prone to unethical behavior. Think Enron (shareholders really loved them until they didn’t), MCI, AIG, the whole financial system. And then think of the politics, which feels like it is being driven by the ethos of capitalism. If people think politicians are unethical, then they have to think about the money behind politics. And capitalism is about money.

We have big problems to solve but it can’t be solved due to the current gridlock in Congress (maybe it will be better with the new Republican regime…maybe).

The author also talks about purpose. If you want your employees to be engaged (there’s that word again), then you are going to have to have an overarching purpose beyond making money for the shareholders. He provides some great examples:

“The stated purpose of Apple is ‘to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.'”

“The purpose of security-software maker Symantec is to ‘create confidence in a connected world.’ ”

“The purpose of Patagonia, a maker of outdoor clothing, is ‘to inspire and implement solutions to an environment in crisis.’ ”

“Now contrast these three statements with the following three.”

“The purpose of Chevron is ‘to achieve superior financial results for our stockholders, the owners of our business.’ ”

“The purpose of Office Depot is ‘to be the most successful office products company in the world.’ ”

“The purpose of Ametek is ‘to achieve enhanced, long-term shareholder value by building a strong operating company serving diversified markets to earn a superior return on assets and to generate growth in cash flow’ “.

“Which of these companies would you rather work for?”

Metaskills, pg. 117.


Purposes have a tendency to drive behaviors to what you want. So you may have a profitable company, but if you did it unethically by cutting corners, abusing your employees, short-changing your customers or soiling the environment, your business will encounter rough winds eventually.

So along with seeing the big picture and taking the long view, you need to include the ethics and purposes. We have too many people in the world now and we are very interconnected. While industrialization has given us a lot of wonderful things, it has also left us with some huge problems. Couple that with the kind of capitalism we have, we can’t continue with the way we have been going.

Before closing up this section, there is one more great quote that I have to add:

“Milton Friedman believed that the only responsibility of business is to increase profits without engaging in deception or fraud. Really? What about bullying, pollution, or depleting natural resources?” Metaskills, pg. 125.