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Does Systems Thinking Apply To Small Companies?

W. Edwards Deming (Wikipedia) 

The system. W. Edwards Deming claimed that 95% of the performance of an organisation is based on the system, and only 5% is based on the people. I won’t dare go so far as to contradict Mr. Deming, but as a manager in a small company, I am tempted to look at it from a slightly different angle.

A brilliant employee will never perform in a mediocre system, and a mediocre employee will do a decent job in a brilliant system. But if your company is twenty, ten or maybe just five guys (or girls) – surely, people must matter?

You can not blame the worker for wrongdoing, most defects and quality problems are a result of the system. But if you are five guys sitting in the same room trying to make your company succeed – well, you are the system. The five of you. When Joe screws up and says to the other four guys, “Sorry, I’m a victim of the system!” they will probably look around the room and go “Uh, what system?”

But wait a minute. However small a company, there are someone in management, there are someone in sales, you have a customer department, and you’ve (hopefully) got someone actually producing whatever it is you are attempting to sell. Maybe Joe is both management, sales and customer department, but those roles still exist in the company. So however small, your company is an ecosystem. And if you haven’t given that much thought,  possibly not a very good one.

You may just be ten guys, or just five. That doesn’t really matter. You should already be thinking structure. Processes. Quality. Why didn’t Joe tell Pete about the complaint from their most important customer? Why did Pete forget to test the new software that Mike just hacked together? And why did he hack it together when they all agreed last month that the software needed to be robust and well built?

I can hear you shout: “We can’t afford all that stuff, we’re just a small startup company!” Well, to paraphrase old William Edwards Deming: If you focus on quality, quality increase and costs fall over time. However, if you focus on cost, costs will rise and quality decline over time. Surely, that’s not what you want?

So did I answer my own question? Well, kind of. Even though “people are only 5% of the performance”, in those early days you need people who understand just that. That takes us back to where we started, perhaps having gained somewhat of a paradox along the way:

People are helpless to fight a faulty system, but to build the right system, you need the right people. 



Are you bored at work?

On my way to work today, I almost got a hard lesson in the evils of multitasking. I was doing maybe 70km/h on the highway during rush hour, and for some reason I looked out the side window for a few seconds. When I looked back on the road, the cars in front of me was standing still. And I was still doing 70.

Being a certified ninja driver, I instantly hit the brakes and ended up partially sideways about an arms length away from the nearest car. I also had time to peek in the rear view mirror, where I was able to share a look of panic with the guy in the car behind me. Luckily for me, his braking skills was as amazing as my own.

I guess that should have made me want to write something profound about life. About not wasting your life in the office, perhaps. And it kind of did.

When driving a car, you should really pay attention to what you’re doing. But it’s easy to get distracted when you’re sleepy, as I was. It’s also easy to get distracted when you’re bored.

People who really love what they do are often portrayed as being really focused. They may appear single minded, driven towards a goal. You’d probably not hear anyone describe them as distracted.

At the moment I drive a “family car”. It’s so boring to drive that I’m both distracted and sleepy before I even get out of my driveway. A few years back I had a purpose built sports car. Something about it seemed to demand my full attention at all times.

Sure, I drove more aggressively when I had it, but I was also a lot more focused behind the wheel. Driving to work was no longer a task, it was fun. I was focused on driving the car, and never got distracted by random objects along the road. Driving a sports car actually made me a better driver. I was doing something fun. And part of what made it fun, was that I was a part of a well functioning system. So if you are easily and often distracted at work, why is that?

How does it feel when you sit behind your desk at the office, does it feel like you’re driving a Porsche? Or are you actually bored and frustrated? Are your boss, your co-workers or the processes and policies of your company preventing you from doing a good job?

If that is the case, please let me remind you that you are spending nearly half of your waking hours at that desk. That’s a lot of time spent not having fun.

Just saying.