Volume 127, November 2013: Systems Training

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, 2013 ISSN # 1545-8873

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relation to everything else. Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy. – Margaret Wheatley

Deming defined a system as a set of interdependent parts aligned for a common aim. All behavior occurs within a system, all parts of which are, by nature, dependent on one another. Each person involved has made a contribution to the problem and owns some responsibility.

I use a Yarn Exercise when teaching systems thinking, to help people visualize what a system is. All the participants stand and I make the first toss, holding on to the starting piece of yarn. The person who catches it, tells something about themselves, their work life, what they care about, something they’ve learned – this can be tailored to the subject at hand. Holding their piece of yarn, they randomly toss it to another person. This speaking and tossing continues, until the yarn has connected everyone and returns to me. Holding this frame, I ask players what we have here. A work of art? A system of interdependent parts? Every system is unique and an N of 1.

Are we aligned by a common aim? Yes is the answer, if only true for the classroom: we are there to learn. We demonstrate the interdependence by having players move, holding their yarn, and test to see if others feel the difference. They do. We ask someone to drop their yarn, and then see if the system is different. Of course, it is. We study what travels along the string – what holds us together in relationship. Inevitably, someone guesses “information.” Information forms us and informs us, says Margaret Wheatley. We surrender our work of art to the floor and some compulsive participant rolls the ball back, or takes it for their cat.

Leaders must commit themselves for life to quality and productivity; they cannot delegate it. That means that they understand the systems they own, the meaning of variation, and barriers to pride in workmanship. They must design systems that build in quality and innovation. They must understand that poor systems, not bad people, are usually at fault for poor quality. There is no substitute for such knowledge.

Practice Point

Align your players with a common aim, and allow information to freely flow through the network. Involve everyone and keep a focus on the system as a whole, not just each component part. Move individuals’ thinking beyond their own needs, wants, and desires to focus on the system as a whole. Practice language that emphasizes systems thinking. For example, “I see why you would want to do that but how will the overall system benefit?” or “If we strengthen your department, what benefits will this have for the entire system?”


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