• Robb G. Best

Saving Grandma, or: 5 Steps to Dealing With Complex Systems

Last week’s blog dealt with the inherent threat in complex systems, specifically your Grandmother, (or really, anybody’s Grandma) and corporations in general. This week, we’ll take a look at how not to get caught up on the sticky side of complex systems.

A quick review: we’re using the word “complex” to describe systems where the relationships between parts are so multidimensional and tangled that you can’t use reductionist thinking to understand them. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, in complex systems, cause and effect loops are tough to recognize because they can happen very slowly.

Normally, we can observe the results of a given action in real time. In a complex system, the change can take hours, days, weeks or even months to register. When your grandma ingests multiple medications, the chemicals may need a while to build up in her system before anyone can detect a serious problem.

The second problem? A complex system has so many connections that you can’t always solve one problem without it spilling over into other areas, causing unintended consequences.

Extending lead times on your factory’s production might sound like a good idea to an overworked factory employee, but the ramifications for delivery and inventory could have a potential devastating effect on your ability to supply the needs of your customers. The blowback could lose customers, causing a drop in order levels, and eventually jeopardize the factory workers job.

So how do you solve a problem in a complex system if you can’t cleanly trace cause-and-effect?

1. Take a step back and take a holistic approach.

Even something as simple as an aquarium of fish operates with some degree of complexity when you account for all the variables that might account for system failure (i.e. dead fish.)

Water temperature, size of tank, mineral quality, the filter apparatus, the decomposition quality and nutrition of fish food, bacteria, saliency, and fish compatibility (goldfish can be real bullies) are interrelated. Adjusting one aspect can radically affect many others.

2. Attempt to map out all the possible interconnections.

Remember: the most seemingly insignificant connection can have devastating effects. A change in the water temperature of your goldfish bowl, a new machine on the factory floor, or a switch in Grandma’s ear medication might not seem like a big deal, but any of these things can set into motion a whole series of negative consequences.

3. Don’t assume that interconnections necessarily follow a linear path.

We think of the drain in a bathtub as an ‘outflow,’ and generally that’s true, but if there is sewage backup, that same opening can act as an ‘inflow’, filling the tub with some pretty nasty stuff. Understanding how all connections are potentially ‘inflow’ or ‘outflow’ mechanisms greatly expands our understanding of why systems breakdown or fail.

4. Look for reoccurring events.

Whether it’s the habits of a factory worker or the time of day Grandma takes her medication, keep an eye on patterns. These mini repetitive loops within a larger system are often ripe for discovering real problems. If you’ll recall, it was only around the turn of the 20th century that we realized the link between post-operative infections and surgeons failing to wash their hands.

5. Remember that mapping can be deceptive.

Mapping a system is critical to get your arms around its many facets. That said, even the map in the world represents only a snapshot in time. Complex system aren’t static. Mapping can never capture the intricacies and infinite number of opportunities for change.

Complex systems require a kind of thinking that does not come easy to the human brain. Our brains do much better dealing with solving a large quantity of simple problems, not one large problem with many moving parts.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for complex systems. As doctors and hospitals utilize computer technologies to better track Grandma and her medications, and companies begin to understand holistic mapping, there is reasonable cause for hope.

Now if I could just figure out why my goldfish keep dying…


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