Appreciation for a System is Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s first principle from his teachings on management and transformation of business. Deming teaches us that a leader must understand the system he or she is attempting to manage.
Now, I’ve been exposed to this lesson, and in fact have taught it during many training sessions in the past few years. But it wasn’t until recently that I became haunted by it.
The way we generally gain Appreciation for a System is to make the system VISIBLE. This means mapping out the activities that take place in order to achieve the overall aim of the system. We map out the activities of the way work gets done today, not in some idealistic world, but the way it actually happens right now.
Recently, my team drew out a system map for a system that I am attempting to manage, and showed it to me. My heart sank and a lump developed in my throat. Thats not a system that I architected or would ever even approve of. Thats a system that just kind of casually formed out of the chaos over time. And I didn’t like what I saw (and by the way, the team didn’t like it either).
You might work in a place where every process and job duty has been carefully architected to optimize output, and streamline work. Or, like me, you work within a system that just kind of came to be, over time, because the people working within it had to do what they had to do in order to survive. And whats worse, there may not be anyone technically “responsible” for the system or feel they have the authority to change it.
But here’s the good news. What I learned is that as soon as you make the system visible, opportunities for improvement literally jump off the page. So, if you can get the people within the system together to make it visible - no matter who technically owns it - you can make progress.
Here’s how it works. If you are dissatisfied with the way work is getting done, you’re missing deadlines or feeling frustrated by rework and communication do-loops, try to gain an appreciation of your system. Ask those who work within the system to meet and map it out.
To frame the conversation, start by agreeing on the following attributes of your system.
Name of the System - this will make sure everyone is on the same page on what you are mapping out.
Aim of the System - this is tough, as it requires everyone to agree on the singular purpose for why you are doing the work you are doing.
Stakeholders - identify who has a stake, who benefits from the system working well.
Boundaries - what is included, where does the system start and stop.
Metric - what is the ONE thing you measure to know if you are fulfilling the aim of the system.
Then, clear a large space on the white board to map the system. And most likely erase it and map it again, and repeat until you’ve got a good understanding of how everything is working… and not working, today.
Now, give everyone a chance to suggest ideas to improve it. Focus on improving the parts of the system that are highly unpredictable, the parts where people are getting stuck or slowed down, and the parts where motivation stalls out and apathy sets in.
And if you are the leader who is attempting to manage this system, start experimenting with the ideas and implement the ones that gain traction and help you achieve the overall aim better, faster or with more fun being had along the way.