by Kristen Cox, GOMB Executive Director
Organizations have multiple dimensions—those that are easy to observe and those that are difficult to notice if one doesn’t know where to look for them. Without seeing the full picture, we often misdiagnose a problem and treat the symptoms rather than address the root cause. A careful examination of trees can teach us a great deal about the multiple dimensions of a system and the need to dig deep to fully uncover and diagnose its structure and processes.
To a casual observer, most information gathered about a tree’s health and vitality would come by simply standing next to it. From this vantage point, we can observe the condition of the bark, estimate height and width, and maybe even guess the tree’s specific name or type. While this information may be interesting, it is not enough to truly understand the full make-up of the tree. Dendrologists (those who study trees) also observe the tree crown and canopy—something that requires looking at the tree from above. Observing the crown and canopy helps these experts determine the tree’s reproductive system, efficiency in terms of obtaining light, and major life processes like photosynthesis.
Cutting a tree trunk horizontally will also reveal to experts rich information about the tree’s health and history including age and external variables such as drought, fire, or insect infestation. Experts also look at other variables, such as total wood volume, as a way to compare trees and their respective growth patterns and vitality. Simply observing what is readily apparent does not provide a full view of the tree’s entire history. One has to dig deeper into the structure and make-up of the tree to uncover any underlying disease or environmental factors that may be driving the tree’s overall health.
The same is true for systems and organizations. Our observations and experience with an organization has everything to do with how we diagnosis a problem and provide potential solutions. In short, we observe or make assumptions based on our observations and then design strategies based on what has been observed. If we really want to improve performance, we must ensure that those things we are observing give us a clear picture of what is truly happening within our system.
In my experience, people tend to observe what is readily apparent. That is, we observe what we can easily see, read, or hear. So, we review policies, spreadsheets, endless reports, and customer complaints. We gravitate to organizational charts, technology, and “best practices” posted on web sites. While important, these elements only tell part of the story. Absent is the more critical and telling information. We often launch major reorganizations, technology projects, and policies based on a limited understanding of the underlying issues. Within this context, we should not be surprised when a problem doesn’t go away or, at times, even becomes worse.
Without effort and an understanding that there are ways to extract critical information outside of what is easily seen, dendrologists could easily miss the data to correctly determine a tree’s health or the reasons for its demise. Likewise, we should be diligent about making certain we are observing our systems from every vantage point and are digging deep to really understanding what is happening with the system.
To assist with this approach, consider the following five principles when evaluating a system:
- Strive restlessly to address the root cause(s) and not simply the symptoms that are easy to observe
- Recognize that performance improvement takes effort and a willingness to dig deep
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions to problems
- Think about the entire system and how all the individual pieces fit together and impact one another
- Ask the difficult questions—then keep asking and asking
The Theory of Constraints (TOC) teaches us to understand the difference between cause and effect. For a great read on cause and effect, try “The Choice,” or other books by Dr. Eli Goldratt.