download (1)Professor Stafford Beer wrote that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” which is often stated by its acronym of POSIWID.

This is looking at systems via a kind of backwards logic. (See my earlier ‘harmony or cacophony’ post if you’d like to look at them going forward first!)

Another quote might help:

“Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets.” (Don Berwick)

Okay, so let’s see if these examples exercise your mind a bit:

 Example: Supposed purpose: (unintended?) Reality:
School (Teacher) Help our children grow into well rounded individuals capable of sustaining themselves in the world Train our children to pass tests on a specified curriculum and go up the ‘league tables’.
Parliament (Politician) Help deliver a better life for the electorate Get elected next time round/ get set up for a nice life ‘after’ politics.
Police Help keep us safe Meet targets for resolving reported crime and completing paperwork.
Call centre Satisfy the callers actual need (however long this takes) Deal with callers as ‘efficiently’ as possible (‘average handling times’).

In Stafford Beer’s words:

“The purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.”

So, what’s the point? There’s a BIG difference in what we might like the purpose of our (organisational) system to be and what it actually is!

You can say that the purpose of the system is [XYZ] until you are blue in the face but, if this isn’t what it actually delivers, then by point of fact it ISN’T its (current) purpose.

How should we use POSIWID to assist us?

POSIWID is used to counter the belief that the purpose of the system can be understood purely from the intentions of those that design, operate or promote it. Complex systems (which organisations certainly are) are not controllable by simple notions of management. Interventions in complex systems can only be properly understood by observing their true effect on system behaviour.

This means:

  • listening to and observing demand*, particularly failure demand;
  • finding out:
    • what the system is currently capable of (using measures, NOT targets); and
    • how it actually works – get facts, don’t rely on opinions….which fits in perfectly with going to the Gemba; and
  • taking a scientific (open minded!) approach to interventions….which must avoid shonky experiments!

* a big part of the purpose of your system (at whatever level you define this) is to deal with the current demands coming into it….whatever they may be.

A final point on Management’s intent and Management controls

If we look above the value streams and observe an organisation’s management system, we are likely to see leaders saying wonderful things about respecting, empowering and supporting the process performers….yet people who work within a ‘command and control’ environment experience a set of management controls (cascaded personal objectives , numeric activity targets , contingent rewards , and performance appraisals ) that contradict and constrain these ideals.

“No matter what you say your values and beliefs are, the mechanisms of control define what your culture really believes about who can be trusted with what. [The desired management system] won’t work if you pay lip service to it.” (Mark Rosenthal)  

Note: Stafford Beer (1926 – 2002) was a theorist, consultant and professor and founder of the field of Management Cybernetics. He is another giant who, sadly, is no longer with us.

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