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Systems – The Architecture of Deep Excellence and Sustainability

“In spite of the fact that management is responsible for the system, or for lack of the system, I find in my experience that few people in industry know what constitutes a system.” W Edward Deming

 

If you want to learn something new read an old book, said a wise man once.

It is scary and often depressing to realise how true this statement is. When we read about the contributions by Deming in the eighties and nineties, to true quality and productivity effectiveness, one can only wonder – what if? What if every organisation really grasped what Deming was putting forward in relation to quality output and people’s engagement with the work that they do? How much more efficient, effective, and harmonious could workplaces be today?

It is incredible to think that there are organizations today running processes at efficiency levels below fifteen percent! This low level of performance can only be maintained by the exorbitant profits achievable within certain sectors. One can only wonder how much more benefit could be brought to civilisation if they could run their businesses at say sixty or even eighty percent efficiency? How much waste would be prevented? How much energy could be saved? Is the acceptance of these low levels of efficiency a vestige of some deep tribal element of our stone age brain that might be holding us back for such noble and altruistic types of thinking? As long as our tribe is doing OK, that’s all that matters.

Given the challenges we now face in relation to climate change and the loss of biodiversity this stone age thinking is no longer acceptable. We need to find better ways to review, manage and improve the way our businesses work, both internally and externally.

This wider integrated approach can only be achieved through a systems-based philosophy focused on the way organisations are designed, managed and constantly improved. However, as we will explain in another article, it is far more than an awareness of individual system structure. The true power of a systems-based philosophy is the integration between business systems and how that integration is constantly improved.

If we use the analogy of our neural network to describe how the various systems integrate. The optic nerve controls the eye. The vagus nerve the stomach, the various nerves that sense touch, taste, heat. None of these systems can work alone. They integrate with other important systems, our muscles our digestive system, our brain through key junction points, called nodes.

If we were to map key systems in our business, how we generate sales, how we make stuff, how we design new stuff, how we develop appropriate skills, how we maintain and improve our critical assets, how we constantly improve the performance and quality of our processes, where would the nodes connect?

How well does information between these systems flow? What would the monitoring and feedback systems tell us?

As young boy I was fascinated by the natural world, in particular the ocean. This ultimately led me to a Master’s degree in oceanography. My research involved the review of the way in which heavy metals from man’s industrial and domestic activity could be traced through the sediments, water column and organisms of our oceans. My studies involved trips to the Artic circle the East Coast of the United States and the West and East coasts of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Photo of John Quirke sampling sediments off East Coast of USA and Artic Circle.

My work with metal chemistry led me to a role in the electronics company Fujistu where I developed and managed Electroplating and Ink Manufacturing processes. I stayed in the manufacturing field finally ending up in medical device and pharmaceutical environments and from there into the world of consulting.

But my studies and work in oceanography have always stayed with me. As I progressed in my career two things became clear. Industry did not optimise its processes to minimise the use of precious resources, thereby creating a lot of waste. This waste would eventually end up in some part of our natural environment where it’s impact would be studied by another research student!

Secondly business did not work with an integrated systems mindset. Even as a young fresh engineer it was clear that organisations were not set up to optimise the way important elements of the business worked together for the benefit of the whole.

My studies in oceanography revealed the web of integrated natural systems that have been in place for millennia. I could find traces of copper, lead and zinc which had originated from man’s land based activity in the deep ocean sediments. These contaminants were carried there through the cross over between living biological systems, and the physical circulatory and sedimentation systems of our great oceans.

James Lovelock author of the Gaia hypothesis showed just how interdependent and finely tuned our natural planetary systems are. During his research in the nineteen eighties, he describes how tiny marine plants called phytoplankton release the gas dimethylsulphide (DMS) which when it oxidises in the upper atmosphere is a major source of cloud-condensation nuclei (CCN). Thus, where there is an abundance of plankton the presence of DMS and resulting CCN cause clouds to form, reducing light levels and supressing excessive plankton growth.

 

Ref: Oceanic phytoplankton, atmospheric sulphur, cloud albedo and climate By Robert J. Charlson, James E. Lovelock, Meinrat O. Andreae & Stephen G. Warren. Published in Nature Vol. 326 No. 6114, 16 April 1987.

Now, all too late, our stone age brain is realising the power of interconnected natural systems to control and regulate our life support system – planet earth.

Within business we must begin to grasp the idea of integrated systems to ensure our businesses work as effectively and efficiently as possible. To neglect to do so is against the new nature of business.

Only businesses have the ingenuity and resources to react at the speeds necessary to mitigate the oncoming challenges to our planet. An integrated systems-based approach is critical to allow us to move out of our stone age brain and strive for a business environment that reflects deep excellence.

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