Sunday, February 20, 2011

Systems Are Perfect

I recently attended a two-day workshop on Continual Improvement, which turned out to be much more interesting than I thought it would be: short on jargon; long on common sense and useful tools. At one point during the training, the presenter talked about reasonable variation. He drew a horizontal line representing the mean, and then drew a series of wavy lines moving above and below the mean. He talked about how in any system, you'll have performance above and below the mean at various times, which is, after all, how we arrive at a mean in the first place. He said that variation that within three standard deviations from the mean, positive and negative, is generally considered reasonable and predictable, and that when you see cases above or below that mark, that's when you should start paying attention to what's going on. He said we often spend fruitless time worrying about reasonable variation and making it go away--treating the normal as exceptional--and forget to pay attention to the special cases and what they may have to teach us.

Then he added something more interesting. He said we often blame the system for performance levels that we don't like, calling it broken or dysfunctional. But we fail to see that when this performance level is predictable and stable (even if it stinks), the system isn't broken at all--it's working give you exactly those results. Any system that gives you a predictable and stable result is a perfect system....for that result. The problem isn't that the system isn't working and needs to work better--it's that it's a BAD SYSTEM for what you're trying to accomplish.

Today I went for a stroll through the National Portrait Gallery, it being President's Weekend and all, and I came across this handsome gentleman:

Youngest of eleven children (If I remember correctly), never got past the 8th grade, ran away from home penniless. How many young people in today's America share that piece of his life story? Millions? And how many people in today's America--whether they began with his challenges or not--have achieved what he achieved? A handful? One? None?

There are extraordinary people, and extraordinary people will always, by definition, do extraordinary things. They are the special cases that live above (or below) those three standard deviations off the mean. But what is the educational mean we're hitting today, in our culture? Is it even close to what we had in Franklin's day?

Granted, education was a more haphazard affair, back then. Some kids got schooling; some didn't. Some kids had private tutors and learned Greek; some learned how to read and write and then went out to work the fields next to their fathers; some were denied the right to read at all. But taken all in all, looking at the whole society, not just the cream of the crop, would you say the literacy level, the ability to work with numbers, and the general level of knowledge about things like history, science, and the arts was higher back then, or higher right now.

Personally, I'd say It Depends. In areas like science, I would say we have more general knowledge and less general ignorance and superstition. But then, after I would say that, I would open up a newspaper and read about how people deny evolution, or refuse to admit that the climate is changing, or think that renewable energy is a Communist Plot. So maybe I'd be wrong.

In basic numeracy....well, let's face it. McDonald's had to put pictures of their food on their cash register keys, because the kids they hired couldn't add or make change. Thousands of high school students in California--maybe hundreds of thousands--routinely fail their high school exit exams because they can't pass a test that focuses on middle-school math.

Literacy? Given the fact that the rich learned to read the Odyssey in the original Greek and the slaves were forced by law to remain illiterate, that's a pretty wide margin to operate in. But I'd be willing to bet that the mean literacy level was still higher than ours. Even when families owned only one or two books, those books were a King James Bible and a Collected Shakespeare. And they could read both. How many of our high school students can read either?

If someone were trying to foment rebellion today, would he write "Common Sense"? Would anyone be stupid enough to write page after page of densely worded arguments, composed in complex compound sentences, if he were trying to reach The Masses? People don't write that way even when they're writing for an educated audience, these days. Short sentences. Bumper-sticker ideas. Slogans. 140-word Tweets. Don't try to explain. Don't bother to argue. Don't support your position with ideas or historical precedent or appeals to reason or logic. Just SAY IT. Whatever it is you think, or believe, or want people to do, just SAY IT and hope that they will DO IT.

That's us. We SAY and we DO, but we rarely think or reflect.

Is it just that the world has sped up? That technology makes it harder for us to take the time to reflect? Or have we trained ourselves out of the habit?

If the system is giving you predictable and stable results, then the system is not broken. In fact, it's perfect. It's also bad.

What is our system giving us?

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