Systems Thinking World is a discussion forum for both experienced systems thinkers and those wanting to learn their way around systems thinking. I’m somewhere in between, and one of my current Big Thoughts is that there must be more awareness of system dynamics incorporated into employee engagement. So I’m in hot pursuit of understanding both concurrently. Most importantly, I’m studying how to communicate both in a way that sinks in.
This question was posed to the systems thinker community…why is six sigma so widely accepted, when systems thinking is not? A great many responses followed, deep and scholarly assessments of the state of systems thinking, level of understanding and, more importantly, level of acceptance with the general public. Big concepts, big words…vast amounts of tasty thought morsels were offered by the systems thinking community. But not much in the way of resolution.
Engagement suffers from the same problem as systems thinking—no mainstream acceptability —very probably due to the same root cause. I played with this same thought some time ago, in Much Ado About Nothing.
Experts, a challenge: step back a few paces and read your field’s literature and discussions through the eyes of a novice sneaking a peek at your stuff for the first time. Systems thinking, engagement, even basic continuous improvement—this applies to all these disciplines. Most regular folks’ eyes glaze over in a hurry and survival mode kicks in when they take that cautious peek. Every now and then an innocent entry-level question is met with a deluge of scholarly responses that go nowhere with substance. Result: the neophyte is pushed even further away and the safer survival instinct is reinforced: don’t fight and ask questions, simply flee.
Hypothesis: experts have made systems thinking and engagement too complex, too theoretical, too “expert” to be accessible to the mainstream. The various community experts, especially in engagement and systems thinking, have pretty much earned their reputation as unapproachable purveyors of dark, scary practices. Too much high-level thinking and theoretical musing to be attractive to most, not enough doing and results to sell the do-ers and decision-makers.
Does this exchange sound familiar?
What do you do?
I’m an engagement specialist (or…I’m a systems thinker)
OK….(quizzical look)…come on man, what do you really do to earn your paycheck?!
- A FEW TO-THINK-ABOUTS
SixSigma has numerous tools that can be used within the DMAIC framework, but most practitioners and projects stick with only a handful of heavy lifters. Some sixsigma training still insists on reviewing the entire toolbox gamut. Impressive to few, confusing to most;
A Microsoft Project power user produces a mind-blowing Gantt chart that the project’s worker bees can’t make sense of. Who benefits, what is accomplished?
SixSigma is based on statistical formulas. While it is essential to understand variation, and what “sigma” means, is it really necessary for all the players to understand how sigma is calculated?
The purpose of engagement is to maximize performance, but too often the stated emphasis is more like “our goal is to raise employee engagement levels”. A fuzzy target rather than tangible action and real results;
SixSigma focuses on specific problem characteristics and generates tangible, measurable results using a specific process with specific tools. However,
Systems Thinkers and engagement experts cruise at 50,000 feet where the air is simply too rare for most. Should the experts expect others to do without oxygen, or should we make a greater attempt to cruise at a lower, safer altitude, fill the seats and still get to where we need to go?
In a continuous improvement project the goal is to make something better, period. As facilitator or project manager I must be aware of systemic dynamics as they are critical and someone must be mindful of them. And there is always an opportunity to preach the gospel of engagement, as engagement practices will help standardize and sustain the initiative.
But those add-ons divert the improvement team’s focus away from the basic target: improve. It is much better to simply involve the right people, give them the right basic tools, and facilitate the improvement journey. Along the way, throw in an occasional guiding nudge of systems thinking or engagement theory as the opportunity comes up. Don’t force the issue.
With this casual drive-by approach it isn’t even necessary to reference systems thinking or engagement by name. Doing so only begs for further explanation. The message will be plenty meaningful if presented in the right context—accomplishing the task at hand. It does not and should not be center stage.
The same message would not be so easily received if delivered in a full-blown presentation on systems thinking and engagement theory. However, if the team or organization ever gets to the point that systems thinking or engagement officially takes center stage, these casual hands-on project touches are invaluable examples: “hey, this is nothing new. Remember when we….?”
One discussion respondent suggested that system thinkers “….design (or borrow) a meeting or process to move this valuable discussion out of the casual discussion stage and into the “let’s get serious about discovering a solution that works” stage.” In other words, find a concrete way to further systems thinking. A reply to that: “…contributors have provided a snapshot of a dynamic through their experiences…a hypothesis needs fully testing. Do you have a hypothesis?”
Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Much ado about nothing. Thinkers exploring concepts is critical as it furthers our understanding. But when we need broader acceptance, maybe a separate application-only discussion group is called for:
- Describe the situation;
- What is the best action and desired outcome of that action? And,
- Very briefly, what is the theory or concept the action is based upon? (just for context, to placate the deep thinkers).
Would it work? Could we stave off the urge to confound the issue by burying it in complexity?
Is this idea just another Big Thinker Thought in disguise? The whole point of this post is…all this wonderful thinking is pointless if it doesn’t lead to stickiness and action / results. So, what next?