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.

Introduced Seed – Mutiny on the Bounty

We know that various plants and animals have invaded new habitats when they have been introduced, either intentionally or accidentally. Plants often come into a new environment as ‘introduced seed’. The newly introduced species can often displace other varieties which cannot compete with the invader. At other times the newly introduced species can be a god-send.

There is a famous incident known as the Mutiny on the Bounty, popularised in books and academy award winning movies – with such famous actors as Errol Flynn (1933), Charles Laughton, Clark Gable (1935), Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris (1962), Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson (1984). The real event took place in the remote South Pacific seas back in 1789, just one year after Australia was colonised. A ship’s crew, led by Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, took over Captain Bligh’s British Royal Navy sailing ship named the Bounty, and sailed to Pitcairn Island where they settled.

When I read Captain Bligh’s ship’s log I discovered that the voyage was all about ‘introduced seed’. Inspired by botanist Sir Joseiph Banks, the British wanted to introduce a Tahitian plant known as breadfruit to a West Indies community which was deficient in food variety. The “bounty” was to be a shipload of seedlings. However the voyage was interrupted by the mutiny.

As an historical note, when the breadfruit was eventually delivered by Captain Bligh on a second voyage in 1792 the slaves in Jamaica refused to eat the fruit. But enough of the history lesson, let me get to my point.

Planet Earth has received an ‘introduced seed’. An extra-terrestrial seed has been brought here, which allows a totally new kind of fruit to be enjoyed by earth’s inhabitants. The ‘seed’ is the Word of God – and it is an indestructible, eternal seed. When planted in human hearts it spawns a new kind of life-form, divine and eternal, springing from the mortal soil. Mortal, human creatures, mired and enslaved by sin, are able to propagate, within their very being, an eternal and divine existence, connecting them to the God of all Eternity as one of His children. This is a most amazing seed and we are most wonderfully privileged to have it introduced to us.

However, not everyone likes the fruit. Just as the Jamaican slaves rejected fruit which nourished Tahitians, humans have been known to spurn the eternal seed which has the power to set them free from their mortality. People have ingested the seed, then spat it out. Some have found it hard to digest. Others have simply despised its relative tastelessness, compared to the commercialised products designed to tempt their senses. This seed is, after all, “angels’ food” (see Psalm 78:25). It does not pander to base human appetites (see Matthew 16:23 and 1Corinthians 2:14). It lies dormant in the soil of the human heart unless it is “mixed with faith” (see Hebrews 4:2).

Those who have no interest in this divine ‘introduced seed’ can live their whole lives without it. Those who have been born again by the germination of this seed cannot live without it. Those who live without it exist without any sense for what it is. Those who have eaten of its fruit have transcended their personal capacities and enjoyed realities that are of eternal consequence.

Praise God for introduced seed. I pray that you pick up the seed packet – the Bible – and determine to plant the seeds, watering them with faith, until your life has become a verdant garden of eternal frutfulness.

Order – the Torch

Having waxed lyrical about ‘order’ I realise I need to bring you up to speed on why the subject has caught my attention. As I travel internationally I look for simple ways to communicate important ideas. In speaking about Family I realise that many people have lost sight of God’s intended design for the family. So I looked for an allegory which would convey the importance of ‘order’ in the family.

The allegory I came up with was that of the battery powered torch. If  I were to pull a torch apart, the pieces are few and relatively simple. There is a casing. There are the batteries (assuming 2 batteries in the average torch). There is the lens at the front which focuses the light. Then there is the tiny globe.

If I were to spread the torch pieces on a table would I have a torch? If you say, “No”, I could protest and say that I have all the pieces, so what is missing? If you say, “Yes”, I could protest and say that I can’t get any light out of the pieces. You see, a torch is More than the sum of its pieces. A torch (and many other things as well) involves a set of pieces, but also the all important Order !! If the pieces are not in the right order then the torch simply will not work. It will not be a torch, but something that resembles a torch.

Assume, then, that I take the pieces and set them in order, except that I put the batteries in the wrong way round. When I turn on the torch there is no light. Why? Because I have the wrong ‘Order’. So, the missing ingredient in a set of torch pieces is the unique arrangement of those pieces in a special order that causes their sum to be much more than the mere sum of the parts.

Applying that same observation to a family, a dad, mum and kids could be sitting together in church. To all outward appearances they are a ‘family’. But a true family is not the collection of the parts. A true family is the parts configured in a divinely appointed ‘order’ that causes the lights to come on.

The children sitting with their parents may be in quiet rebellion. The wife may despise her husband. The husband may have lost all commitment to his wife. There may be little reality of true ‘family life’ among the family members. The marraige may be a farce. Yet to all who look on the appearance of a family persists.

If your family is nothing more than a collection of people then you are missing the wonder and the powerful result of establishing divine ‘order’. So, ‘order’ is a pretty big deal for me. But then, that’s where the messy part comes in. Order, which leads to productivity, then produces mess. And the two must survive in happy counter-balance. Interpersonal relationships mean that we bump into each other. Our self-interest bumps into another person’s wishes. Our impatience and intolerance hit those around us. It can get quite messy.

If you would like to see more how I have applied the concept of ‘order’ to the family check out my book, Family Horizons – Creating Families of Destiny. You will find it at the Family Horizons website –

Order – the Japanese Garden

I made comment recently about “Order & Mess” pointing to Solomon’s wisdom from Proverbs 14:4. The point is that we need order, especially in productive systems and processes. Order is very powerful. Yet productive processes create mess, which interferes with the order and presents us with management challenges – the workload of dealing with the mess. 

Solomon’s allegorical reference point is the beast of burden, the ox. He notes that you can have a squeaky clean barn and work area if you don’t have an ox in there. There’s no need to hose the barn, or shovel sticky brown stuff. Life is so much simpler when the ox is dead and it stops producing its natural biological output. However, Solomon points out, that an ox gets a lot of work done.

The down-side is the mess, but the up-side is the productivity. The mess-making ox has strength that far surpasses ours and there is much productive output from the labours of an ox. The point, therefore, is that order, without mess is simply sterile. There is no output. And that leads me to the Japanese garden.

I have visited elaborate rock gardens and seen some delightful geometric features composed of raked stones, carefully placed boulders, and so on. But I recall my surprise on my first visit to a Japanese garden – that it was not a ‘garden’ at all. Compared with my grandmother’s vibrant back-yard jungle, with its diversity of plants, fruits and pungent blooms, the Japanese garden was sterile and uninviting.  

I am sure that there is great artistic merit in the painstakingly constructed rock features and the seas of swept stone. Just like a painting on the wall, the Japanese garden speaks of serenity, turbulence, loneliness, or whatever the designer planned to convey. But I can’t pick vegetables from a painted garden, even if painted by Constable or Monet. Mood may be evoked, visual delight stimulated and heart-warming memories stirred, but there is no productivity from the order. 

A garden that will feed your family needs to have more than delicately placed stones. It must have more than the image of vibrancy. It must have life that produces fruit. But, alas, in so doing it will also gender weeds, dead leaves, spent plants, insect infestations, litter, odour and similar “mess”. 

“Lord, bless this mess!” Learn how to celebrate the mess. Celebrate the signs of life and fruitfulness. Celebrate the productivity that the mess represents. Then, of course, control the mess. Grab your shovel and deal with the dirt. In fact, create an ordered system for dealing with the mess that productive order and systems produce. It’s the cost of doing business – or, more accurately, the cost of productivity.

Order & Mess

I am impressed by order. Order leads to systems which facilitate productivity. When things are set in order they can be used, attended to, understood, accessed and otherwise put to advantage.

When order is lost then it can take all day just to find something, or processes can be tripped up by inefficiencies. However, productivity almost always creates mess. Manufacturing processes produce off-cuts, waste, spent resources, dust and various other outputs, that can even be toxic and polluting. We can avoid the pollution and mess by simply shutting down the processes.

We can have the ultimate in ‘order’ – by having everything neatly in little rows, all sorted nicely, but never touched or disrupted by productive processes. That, of course, is elevating order to a place that is ridiculous. Life, therefore, involves balancing order and mess.

Order must be preserved, but mess must be accommodated. Order needs to be restored regularly, by dealing with the mess, but then room must be made for the next batch of mess, so that the ‘order’ can be put to productive use. 

Solomon brought this tension to light 3,000 years ago. He drew on the common reality of a beast of burden being put to work. He said, “Where there are no oxen there is no mess. But much productivity comes from the strength of the ox”, Proverbs 14:4. 

You can keep the barn nice and clean, but then you will have to find another way to plough the field, move the loads, turn the water-wheel, and so on. It’s a trade-off. Order has to give way to mess, but mess must not frustrate the order to the point of stopping the processes. 

So, are you ready with that shovel? There’s some smelly stuff that needs to be cleaned up. It’s really unfortunate that smelly stuff exists, but we either live with that or it’s our own back that pulls the plough, carries the burden and turns the water-wheel. So, grab that shovel.