Improving Systems vs. Processes: Identifying the Source of Problems is the Key to Success.
By Theresa Kramarz
Recently a colleague and I were sitting in a local café working on a business alignment mapping for a client. Opposite from where we were sitting there was a couple sitting at two small tables. The man was sitting at the right table. The woman was sitting at the left table. After a few minutes, the man rose up, tried to go between the tables, and hit his head on a lamp hanging from the ceiling.
A couple of minutes later, the man rose up again and hit his head, just like he did before. The lamps are not centered over the tables, so rising up to the left of either table is likely to result in a bump on the head.
The third time the man rose up; he initiated a change in his process. Instead of trying to go between the two tables, he went to the right of his table. This time, he didn't hit his head.
Most people would be satisfied with this. Indeed, we do such process changes all the time, little accommodations to work around the imperfections in the systems we are part of.
However, changing just the process left the couple with unsolved problems. One problem is that if there is a small process variation, for example, if the man forgets to move to the right when he rises, he is likely to bump his head again. Another problem is that the woman might bump her head too. The lamp above her table was also off center.
My colleague decided to point out the problem with the off center lamps to the couple, and suggested that they should move the tables a little bit to the left. The man smiled at me, and moved his table, but not the other one.
We found this very interesting. The man recognized a possible systems improvement when it was pointed out to him, and moved the table. Yet neither one applied the same solution to the table the woman was at. This demonstrated a failure to generalize a solution. The couple could see the problem with the rightmost table, yet did not recognize that there was an identical problem with the table to the left.
Eventually the couple left, without either one bumping their head. Though they did not implement the systems improvement, on the other table, the woman did rise carefully, so as not to bump her head on the lamp above her table.
In general, we are much better at adapting processes than we are at improving systems. On the other hand, improving systems tends to yield much better results. In this case, all customers sitting down at either of the two tables will enjoy a comfortable stay at the café without having to maneuver around or bump their heads. In turn, the café will attract a little bit more business as a result. Since customers encountering this situation might be less likely to return.
To me, the story illustrates one of the core problems many companies face. They aim at improving systems. Yet they have trouble identifying the source of their problems and in the end only modify the process. It is one of the reasons why systems are so hard to implement and problems persist even after a new system is in place.