Systems drive behavior. They also influence patterns of thought. When we enter a system—a company for example—we unconsciously slip into the assumptions of the system. The values and beliefs behind structures seep into practices and policies. Truths that we hold as evident in “real life” may lose their force. 

Let me give you some examples.

Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is a given in most organizations. I (still) commonly meet teams who are working on four or more separate initiatives.

Most of us recognize that if we have umpteen projects—home repair, painting, model building, knitting, sewing—we won’t make much progress on any one of them. I know this from personal experience. I once had eight different knitting projects in progress at the same time. Hmmm. Progress isn’t really right. I had 8 projects on the needles, mostly making no progress at all. (Unlike what happens in many organizations, I abandoned seven so I could finish one.

We know that if we want to get something done, we need to stop starting and start finishing. We know intuitively that working on many things at once delays completing any of them–even if we haven’t been exposed Lean principles.

Full Utilization

Many managers expect, and plan based on 100% utilization. 

In the early 90s, I was working 60 hrs/wk and in grad school. I scheduled my non-work time in half-hour increments.

Then, I was rear ended while driving to the office. Due to my injuries, I spent two hours each day in home traction, in addition to visits to the physical therapist.

My schedule was predicated on everything going right. There was no slack to accommodate unexpected events. I kept up with work, but had to drop classes. This gave me a visceral understanding the need for slack.

System Degradation

Without attention and counter-measures, a system will degrade over time.

When I was in college, I lived in a house with several roommates, not all of whom valued a tidy kitchen. It started with a plate or a cup left in the sink. At first, the tidy roommates cleaned up after the non-tidy ones. But eventually the tidy ones tired of that. House meetings and reminders didn’t help. Over a period of time, dirty dishes piled up in the sink and then onto the counter. 

Preparing a simple meal (this was before microwaves), became anything but simple. First you had to clear counter space. Then, make enough room in the sink to use the sink. Locate pans and utensils in the stack, and extract them without the pile sliding to the floor. It was like Jenga in the kitchen, except gross.

Finally, I moved all the dishes to the bathtub for a pre-soak. I washed them in one long slog.

Most people recognize the impact of not cleaning up the kitchen. But somehow, that knowledge doesn’t transfer to keeping a code base easy to change or a policy manual trim, coherent, and relevant.


Each of these examples represents something we know in our bones. We know from our own lived experience. If we think about it for even a few minutes, we can reason our way these understandings. But when we get to work… we fall into patterns of thought and action based on system assumptions.

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