I have been going through John Sterman’s Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, which is written by the person that holds the Jay Forrester Chair of Business at MIT.
In my many years of corporate engagement, the most enlightening ideas about why corporations fail is presented by the theory of System Dynamics, which was started by Jay Wright Forrester, computer architect.
However, my description of System Dynamics simply a corporate thing is selling the discipline far short. It could be better termed a theory of why life is so complicated. When combined with ideas from Daniel Kahneman, you’ll start to understand why we can’t predict anything. It turns out that the world is enormously complex, and our brains are wired to not be able to accept this complexity. Rather than looking deeper, we try and come up with very simple solutions to these problems, which often backfire.
In System Dynamics, you are given a set of tools that should help you to be able to think through some very simple issues. For example, the diagram above is an example of Fixes That Fail. While I am not going to take the time to go through all of the theory, I will try and walk you through the diagram above.
In System Dynamics, you describe a problem, then you try and find the underlying mechanisms that drive the problem. In this case, we have a problem loop. This is described as B1, in the diagram above. However, there are often reinforcing loops, which are shown in the picture above as R2. The two lines that go through the R2 loop means that there is a delay before the reinforcing loop kicks in. The + or – signs either make the issue less or more.
Let’s say that we make a widget. Then we find out that 1 out of every 100 widgets have a problem, and we are throwing them away. Somebody brightly states, “Throwing all those widgets away is a bad idea. Why are we wasting all this money. Instead, we’ll set up a special group to go and fix these widgets so we can sell them.” So the company sets up a rework station to fix the broken widgets.
In the diagram above, this is shown as the “Fix” part. You can see a problem comes in with a + and the inner circle makes the problem less, so the inner loop shows a red minus arrow coming out of the fix. So, it looks like the problem is fixed. However, there is another loop coming out of the fix. This loop is delayed, and it is easy to overlook. You can also see that the fix makes problem worse, not better. However, we often don’t see these secondary loops because they are almost always delayed. Delayed consequences, in System Dynamics, turn out to be the thing that always gets you.
I have seen the problem above happen the lot in my industry, but I have heard about the same problem in every other industry also. So why is setting up a process to fix the broken widgets bad? Almost always this means that there is less pressure on the design and manufacturing team to do things right the first time. You know that you have a safety net, and this safety net becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, the team making the original mess, starts to get sloppier and sloppier. They depend on the rework more and more, but the secret is that rework is never as good as doing it the first time right.
This happens beyond just corporations. It turns out that a lot of car safety features had a limited amount of impact on deaths per mile driven. One of the driving factors behind this is the Yerkes-Dodson law, which simply states that if you consider that cars are a death trap, you are going to be pretty safe in your operation because you are really watching for any problems. As we put in more safety belts and airbags, drivers simply paid less attention, got themselves into more dangerous situations, and the fix made people pay less attention. However, in the old days when people died in accidents that didn’t seem that bad, everyone paid a lot of attention to their driving.
The good news is that we have now made our cars so overbuilt with so many safety features, we have clearly started over the edge to where these safety features are definitely better than our inattention. However, it took a very long time to get there.
So, what seemed like the most obvious decision, wearing a seat belt, did not have the impact that we would have expected. The morale of this story is that if something as simple as wearing a seat belt is difficult to judge, how do we have a chance of making it in the real world. We can hardly make good decisions.
I would submit that if you can enjoy the beauty of the above, you will start to understand that you are in control of very little. In reality, there are many things that you think you control or can take credit for. In reality, it had nothing to do with you. This idea that we can control things is so strong that there is a name for it. It is called the Illusion of Control. You think you have control, but you really do not. In reality, you cannot see the real issues and you can’t put in fixes for issues that you can’t see.
This is idea echoed through the Bible, and one of the most strongly explained story around this is the story of Joseph. In this story, Joseph finds untold problems at the hands of his family and his employer. However, through it all, Joseph is held up as a remarkable example because he very clearly understood that in the midst of going through everything that he thought was wrong, it was actually to fix the system.
As shown in the woodcut to the side, a tremendous turning point in his life comes when he is called before Pharaoh to explain a dream that God gave Pharaoh. This event takes him from prison to a key job that allows him to have a tremendous influence over all of his family and those that were his previous employers. In a rags to riches story, this allows Joseph to exact any revenge that he would want to get.
However, the ask of revenge never comes. Instead the story ends with his family asking for forgiveness for what wrong that they had done to him. When they come to ask him for forgiveness, Joseph cries.
My belief for Joseph’s tears are often not understood. Many think that Joseph cried because he was disappointed that his brothers, who betrayed him, could not learn to trust him after all that he had done. There may be some of this, but I believe that Joseph’s tears were not only ones of despair over his brother’s mistrust in him. I believe many of his tears were over the frustration that after talking to them about his life, they did not understand the ways in which God worked. Joseph was the original system thinker. He understood that he could not see the whole, but only a part. When you can’t see the whole, you need to trust the God that can see the whole.
He cried over the blind spot of faith that they had. When they finally come to him, the Bible does not quote Joseph as saying “Why can’t you trust me? Why don’t you see all the things I have done?” If Joseph was truly mad at his brothers over their lack of trust in himself, this is the words the Bible would have quoted. Instead, he says the following:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.
In other words, Joseph was deeply disturbed that they couldn’t see the system in the whole thing. They couldn’t understand that the system was so wild and crazy that it took God to work the system to make it work.
This is the lesson to all of us, we can trust our God. He knows what he’s doing. He is with us. The system is too complex for us to manage.
You may want a different job. You may want a different house. You may want to be removed from a difficult circumstance.
The lesson is that you can trust our God.
Most people do not understand why it is impossible to please God without Faith. Let me explain:
1. God’s deepest desire is to see us grow and be complete and whole.
2. To do this, he will manipulate the system to make us the best that we can be.
3. Many times this means that you will not get what seems to be important or needful for you. We need to be understanding through Faith that this is best for us.
4. So we will be in heaven one day, and we can all say, “What others meant for evil, God used for Good.”