Leadership jottings – Systems thinking and process improvement

A good leader has a “systems” mind.  By systems I don’t necessarily mean “IT.” Rather, every organisation functions as a system with inputs, processes and outputs. A good leader has an eye on the whole system. This enables them to be proactive in spotting and responding to potential problems rather than just fire-fighting.

This is important because problems in the process often come because of outside factors. This might be about working in the environment you find yourself in.  For example, if you want to make a product that is meant to be kept chilled throughout the process and you live and work in a hot climate then your process needs to account for that. You also have to respond to customer/client expectations in business and services.  Then there are things like Heath and Safety, governance requirements, legal duties, financial audits, quality control etc.

Bureaucratic rules and time-consuming delays often happen when the organisation sees a risk and tries to prevent it. In other words, without the rules/procedures we are likely to end up in trouble. At best, it might lead to faulty products at worst it may lead to legal liability, injury or death. The problem is that when someone spots a risk they can end up being over cautious leading to an over-strict and legalistic application of rules and procedures.

What usually happens is that most people in the organisation learn to live with the rules. They don’t like them, they are frustrated by them. Some mavericks simply ignore the rules/process because they can’t see the point.  The problem with this is two-fold. On the one hand a lot of people still have to put up with an over-burdensome rule on the other some are just ignoring it. Indeed, if they see the rule as pointless then they may well miss the risk it is meant to mitigate against. So what happens is that one day the rule-breaker gets into trouble, the risk happens at great cost to the organisation. Everyone then learns to stick with the rules again. Eventually some mavericks start to find loopholes and ways around the rules.

The systems thinker spots a problem with the rules/procedures. They don’t just passively comply, nor do they ignore it or find a way round. Instead they ask questions such as “Why is that process there?” “What would happen if it didn’t exist?” “Is there a better way of doing this?”  The end result is that they come up with a solution that benefits everyone.