The Curse of Beneficial Systems

We create systems to facilitate good practice, but those systems create artefacts and outcomes which become a curse to us. I have an example in mind and you may be able to relate to it. So let me take you on a reflection and observation walk through the subject of ‘systems’.

Let’s Hear it for Systems

Just about everything works best if the processes are understood and the best practices are followed. That fact is where we get such notions as benchmarking, world’s best practice, time and motion studies, efficiency and so on. A good system is a means of streamlining a process and setting in place appropriate checks and balances to ensure that things are done properly.

Jet pilots must go through a disciplined check-list process before take off because so much is at stake once they get into the air. Henry Ford revolutionised vehicle manufacturing through his production line system churning out black Model T Fords. Good salesmen have a mental check-list which they are attentive to as they guide their client toward the sale. Courts, distribution businesses, hospitals, schools, garbage collection and just about all other processes of life are governed by some form or systematic regulation and process.

So let’s hear a big cheer for systems! Without them many things would fall into disarray – the loss of proper array, or order. We enjoy speed, accuracy, efficiency, reliability and service, among many other benefits directly due to good systems. Systems are incredibly beneficial.

Systems Impose Limitation

For all the obvious benefit of systems, however, they impinge on many processes a form of limitation. Every routine and regulation prescribes a preferred process and outcome, but automatically restricts or denies other outcomes, which may have their own inherent benefits.

The process and outcome of a system, assuming it can be properly regulated and achieved consistently, effectively removes variety, diversity and creativity from the process. The choice of process and outcome is made by someone who may not have the best view in mind. Once a system is in place it may work against the discovery of better process and outcome, simply because it limits the possibility for discovery and exploration of other outcomes.

School systems seem to be failing to produce a high level of academic and personal ability in many students. The system itself militates against some exploration of better options. Traffic flow systems are the product of studies and analysis and the best option that seems to be available at the time. But how many times have you been frustrated by a red light that holds you back from an empty intersection? I find it frustrating to stand at a pedestrian light, being held back from walking across a street where there is zero traffic. The system is in place to protect me, but it creates an artificial limitation of freedom which earlier generations enjoyed readily.

Systems impose limitation. Your only hope is that the benefits of the system outweigh the downside imposed by the limitations.

The Smell of a Baby

Last month my tenth grandchild was born. This grand-daughter will be often talked about in the annals of our family history, as she managed to be born on the kitchen floor! Baby Acacia came faster than her mother expected. Before the parents could get off to the hospital my daughter-in-law, Katie, found herself in second stage labour. So she proceeded to give instructions to her husband and promptly gave birth on her father’s kitchen floor. A dinner event turned out to be much more than expected.

When we caught up with the mother and baby the next day my wife, Susan, was in awe of something she had never noticed before. The baby had a most wonderful fragrance on the skin. Susan kept drawing in long breaths to enjoy the amazing scent. It was reminiscent of a lovely powdery perfume.

Baby Acacia had not been bathed by then and so the natural fragrance from the birth was still on her skin. And that’s when the whole impact of systems hit us.

Hospital Births

Susan has given birth to seven children. She is no slouch when it comes to childbirth and mothering. But she had never smelled the lovely fragrance of the baby like she did with baby Acacia. Why not? Because of the “system”! Susan gave birth to seven babies in various hospitals. Hospitals rely on systems to make sure everything that needs to be done is done and nothing is neglected. Those systems may not be perfect, but they are a guarantee against neglect, malpractice, and so on.

In order to mechanise processes and teach systems to a wide range of people so consistent and uniform practice is maintained, the systems need to be fairly straight-forward and as simple as possible. The hospital system for dealing with newborn babies is such a system.

I recall being in the delivery ward when our children were born. With the earlier births the process was taken over by the nurses who weighed the baby and checked various things before the mother was given much time with the baby at all. Washing the baby was seen as an important early process to tick off the list.

So that’s what happened to that lovely newborn baby fragrance on the skin of each of my children. That fragrance was taken from us, by the System! We had had idea we had missed it. The system gave no attention to it and we had no idea of our loss.

Rippling Repercussions

With that one case in mind consider the question of how many other impacts are imposed onto us by systems. The repercussions of these systematic processes and their prescribed outcomes ripple through our society and impact our lives constantly.

We are under constant impact from systems. Roads create regions of higher exhaust pollution. Waiting rooms create highly infectious environments. Schools frustrate highly intelligent children who must stay in step with the class average. Courts employ legal processes not understood by the average citizens they are there to serve. Mass distribution provides variety, but only of the most marketable kind, not the way you may want or need it. Got the picture?

Systems that Blind

Systems also blind us to what else may be possible. The existence of a system that has regulated processes and predictable outcomes imposes a certain stricture on our thinking. People tend to stick with what they know, for better or for worse, and so the existent system imposes itself on the thinking of the populace. This has the effect of blinding us to what else may be available.

Just listen to a conversation where someone announces they are going to do something outside the system. What you will hear is a chorus of protest from people who accept the prevailing system as something like a gift from the gods that is not to be challenged. The person’s choice might be a home birth, running their car on home brew, representing themself in court, owner building, or whatever. If you are near such a conversation listen in to the responses from those who feel bound to the systems.

And mull over the fact that while we are blessed by beneficial systems we are also cursed by them as well. That might help you improve on the systems in your life. It might lead you to help us all enjoy more beneficial systems. Good Luck.