February 1, 2022
We’ve all heard the adage “history repeats itself,” and often in business, we feel like we’re living in a Ground Hog Day where the same problems keep cropping up. This article is for managers and leaders who wonder, “can’t we fix this once and be done with it” as well as continuous process improvement (CPI) practitioners. In this post, I’ll cover how structured systems thinking can help us understand the systems surrounding a process and how those systems can influence the process causing problems to repeat.
What is Systems Thinking, and how can it help in Problem Solving?
Structured Systems Thinking is a practical method of visualizing and understanding systems structure. It breaks down complex connections into simple visual patterns that explain current events and how things unfold over time.
Structured Systems Thinking helps improve decision making, avoid future problems, and increase performance. Still, it doesn’t rely on technology or deep analysis. This simplicity makes it ideal for CPI, Lean Six Sigma, or other process improvement efforts as an additional capability. It can be used quickly during kaizen or rapid improvement events or as part of a more structured and longer-term project.
Want to see this in action? Click here and watch the video at the top of the post!
How to Solve Problems the First Time with Systems Thinking
Fixes that Fail
Often in problem-solving, we try a solution we think will help. And things look better at first. But then, over time, the problem gets worse. The Fixes that Fail system pattern explains this effect with a fast feedback loop and a slow feedback loop operating together. The solution activates the fast-gear lop, and things seem to improve. But all along in the slower feedback loop, the problem becomes worse because of the solution we used. And it takes time to realize this impact on the fast gear. Here’s a simplified view from the system pattern card showing just the pattern’s structure and behavior over time.
To see a short video on Fixes that Fail, check out this Accel-5 video, “How to avoid Band-Aid® Solutions.” (Subscription to Accel-5 is required.)
How to Avoid Band-Aid® Solutions | Video | Accel5. (Subscription Required)
Shifting the Burden
Another reason problems repeat is that we put a bandage on the symptom while overlooking the root cause. Without addressing the root cause – the problem keeps appearing. Shifting the Burden is the name of this system pattern, and it involves three feedback loops operating together. A root cause generates a symptomatic effect, and in treating the symptomatic impact, we make the root cause worse. Here’s a simplified view from the system pattern card showing just the pattern’s structure and behavior over time.
To see a short video on Fixes that Fail, check out this Accel-5 video, “How to Prevent Reoccurign Problems.” (Subscription to Accel-5 is required.)
How to Prevent Reoccurring Problems | Video | Accel5 (Subscription Required)
See the Problems Repeating?
Notice that there’s a wavy line in both system patterns that goes up and down over time. We’ve circled the peaks in the image below – this is the reoccurring problem. Whether the slow gear catches up to the fast gear in a Fixes that Fail or the root-cause problem bypasses the symptom cover-up in Shifting the Burden. At each peak, we’re likely to experience or feel the problem occuring, take new steps, and the pain goes away for a while. But until we realize we’re in a system of Fixes that Fail or Shifting the Burden pattern (or both!), the problem continues. We created the system, and if we keep doing the same thing, we’ll get the same result.
How do we avoid this?
Systems thinking gives us some key insights to solve repeating problems based on our understanding of the system patterns. Simplified from the system pattern card are these tips:
- Use two-tier problem solving:
- Mitigate the impact of the symptoms.
- Investing in solving the root cause.
- Use symptomatic solutions sparingly.
- List previous solutions and why they didn’t work.
- Distinguish between a problem being controlled and solved.
Understanding how Fixes that Fail and Shifting the Burden contribute to repeating problems are just two examples of system patterns in action. Many system patterns and paradigms help identify root cause system-level issues when it comes to problem-solving. They guide you on what to do and avoid fixing the problem. Systems thinking is easy to learn, simple to use, but rigorous in its scientific foundation and breadth of the body of knowledge.
- Use two-tier problem solving: