Definitions Of Systems (What's That For?) LO28211

From: John Dicus (
Date: 04/11/02

Replying to LO28180 --

At 03:48 AM 04/09/2002 +1000, you wrote:

>The following comment appeared in reference to 'systems':
>'Understand they can't be predicted or controlled with any regularity'
>Seems like a truism or statement of fact, however I don't think it can be
>substantiated in many cases.
>For example an appropriately documented management system can control a
>production process and almost completely eliminate 'management by crisis'.
>Alan Cotterell

Hi Alan and LO List,

I was being a bit general or philosophic when I said systems can't be
predicted or controlled with any regularity. I certainly agree with what
you said about production processes. There are lots of things we seem to
be able to "get in order" in our lives. We can get out of the reactive
mode -- get ahead of the curve -- get what we want/need from a process.
But I suspect my mind is more on the human elements of systems, wondering
about efforts to control and predict in that arena. And I suspect that my
mind is on the consequences of over-control -- wondering how that
influences our best efforts to birth a more enabling future. And I think
I ponder a lot about how we're always finding new methods to get our
organizations in shape, but never seem to want to tackle the tough issues
of human relationships and interdependence. One of the huge benefits of
this list is learning to think and act together as a group of 2000 people.
As a friend always liked to say "On the way to the learning, the learning

I'm going to try and see what was underneath my comment, and as I begin, I
suspect my own experiences have much to do with it. Please bear with me a

Most of my life experience has dealt with systems that we tend to call
high-performance. Stuff like space-flight systems, or aircraft systems,
or people trying to do things never done before. One definition of
high-performance that has meaning for me is a system that has low margins
when it's "on-design." Or even better, one that has low margins "on
design," and when the system goes flat out, all margins are depleted
uniformly. The system has dipped into all its elements uniformly -- each
working together in harmony -- and there is little wasted or yet to be
given. Just enough is held back to keep the system from going "poof."
And importantly, the system can withdraw from its state of high
performance and still be whole -- ready to go again after some rest and

By margins, I mean reserves... maybe reservoirs. Like how close to its
edge is a system element performing -- how much is left in it? How close
is the wing to breaking off? How close is the space Shuttle to not
achieving orbit? How close is a person to his/her edges? (With people,
knowing one's edges and how close one is to these edges is a challenge.)
How close to the (an) edge is a team, a family, an organization?

Some relevant questions: How far away is breakdown? Can you reach your
desired goal before reaching breakdown? How long can you dwell at your
goal, or desired state? How sustainable is that state? At what cost?
If you leave voluntarily (draw back) or otherwise (forced back), can you
return? Is return to the high performing state by intention or by
"accident?" How catastrophic is (will be) the breakdown? Can you recover?
At what cost?

I used to drag race. Not professionally, but as a hobby of sorts. It was
a constant balancing act. Not only did the "bigger is better" philosophy
come into play, but each system component had to be balanced with respect
to all the others. In some cases bigger was not better. Drag racers
spend a lot of time sorting out combinations. The goal is to cover 1/4
mile in the shortest time possible, so you don't want anything on or in
your car that is not giving it's all, all the time. Well at least for
9-10 seconds anyway. Every time I changed one part (camshaft, intake
manifold, tires, clutch, etc.) each of the other parts was effected. I
used to know a guy in high school who said cars know when you're working
on them. At this stage in my life, it seems that the things we call
"mechanical" and "predictable" have some kind of heart and soul of their
own. I get unsettled when I hear people talk about the evils of the
industrial age -- how hard and cold machines are -- how predictable. I
feel they never saw the beauty in nor wrestled with the unpredictability
of "machines." If you think about it, clocks in "the clockwork society"
were not as predictable as clocks in our "computerized society." But
anyway, I guess the point of my tangent was that if we won't tackle human
interdependence issues, blaming our state of existence on "clockwork
thinking" might be too easy a way out -- and it might lead back in.

Sometimes my car would hang together and the ride would be awesome. And
sometimes there were parts and dollar bills scattered all over a
quarter-mile stretch of asphalt. When everything in a system is near the
edge, it's hard to guess what's going to happen on a regular basis --
especially with people in the equation (building, interacting, driving,

On the other hand, we just unplugged a 37-year old refrigerator that
never, ever failed us. I felt guilty, thinking it must be wondering what
it ever did to deserve such treatment. I think they built more margin
into products in those days? Or it simply may have been a "good one."

After Challenger, when the US Space Shuttle began flying again, there was
a situation in the control room that speaks to lack of regular
predictability. Failing to achieve orbit is a sticky situation. It means
an abort-to-launch-site, or to some other landing area. Imagine how
dangerous that could be. There are computerized systems on the ground
monitoring numerous shuttle components. Although capable of shutting down
a system for safety's sake, they can be over-ridden. As the Shuttle was
accelerating to orbital velocity, an engineer watched as the status of an
APU (a power unit providing hydraulics for engine steering, etc.)
approached and started to go beyond its red-line limit. The shuttle could
not achieve orbit if this unit were to shut down. At the same time,
failure of the unit could be even more dangerous. The engineer, using her
courage, knowledge, training, and intuition, allowed the unit to operate
in the red long enough for the Shuttle's main engines to complete their
burn. Then she began breathing again.

If you've never seen a poem called "The Deacon's Masterpiece," you might
find it interesting. It's about a fellow who built a one-horse carriage
(one horse shay) where each part was designed to outlast all the others.
It was to wear out -- not break down. One day, generations later, it fell
into a heap of dust while rolling along a country road. The story speaks
to balance of system elements. But we also, it seems, need to speak to

(You can read the poem at the following link if you like:

Space shuttles are balanced and have acceptably low margins.
High-performance aircraft are the same. I tried to achieve that with my
race car, but either got the balance wrong much of the time, or when I got
near balance had too little margin. Commercial aircraft have good balance
among system elements, and they have fairly healthy margins (but remember
that if the margins get too large, the plane will be too heavy to fly).
A far as is known at present, the tail of the Airbus in Queens, NY may
have had too little margin.

I don't have any statistics, but wouldn't be surprised if most aircraft
and automobile accidents are not mechanical failure related -- that is,
they are the result if something less predictable and controllable.

For balance and acceptable margin, we need to have not only an awareness
of systems, but an understanding of them. An understanding deep enough
for us to not only see causality once it's caused, but to foresee it to
some degree.

Systems that operate such that we have avoided management by crisis (and
I'm certainly all for that) are understood sufficiently well that we can
balance them, are able/willing to build-in appropriate margins, and can
foresee both good and bad outcomes. The "willing" part is another issue
altogether due to how broad or narrow one's definition of "the bottom
line" and how one perceives what's "good and bad."

I also have been giving a lot of thought to the mating or marrying of
human beings to physical (mechanical) processes. Like a team of human
beings working alongside a mechanized assembly line. One of the beautiful
things about Saturn's process design (if it hasn't changed over the years)
is the intentional buffering designed in-between the humans and the hard
assembly line. It was common to hear a person say "I've got to run and
get back, my team's hard to the line." When human margins are
insufficient to address unforeseen assembly problems, that's when
predictability and control is less regular.

The talk of the day is how stressed we all are, how close to the edge we
are, and how we feel we're thrashing. I believe this is symptomatic of
human systems without balance and without margins. Probably, as well,
symptomatic of too little understanding, too little awareness of
causality, and too little ability to intuitively foresee outcomes. Maybe
even too little courage along with too much apathy to co-create a future.
Just a guess. Maybe even simply too little time to do well with what we
already know -- or to remember what we've forgotten.

At any rate, human systems (organizations, families, nations, communities)
seem to have too little understanding, too little balance, too few margins
(no matter how self-inflicted), and so on. That's probably why I said
systems can't be controlled or predicted with any regularity.

Once we feel we understand human systems well (any system for that
matter), get them in balance, and start to operate architecturally -- we
might get too head-strong an idea that we can control and predict them --
and as a result we might begin to preclude the wonderful emergences that
land us in new and exciting places we never dreamed of before. Perhaps we
should spend a little less time controlling/predicting and more time
creating a rich, catalyzed matrix of possibility. This sounds nebulous
compared to the harder language of process design, but still seems to
contain truth for me. Got to know when to hold on tight and when to let
go. When we "make" a system less reactive, do we make it more
predictable? Are they the same thing? Or do we just want to get rid of
bad surprises leaving more room for good surprises?

I was raised to be in control. Family legacy. College. NASA. One book
that changed me was "Memoirs Of A Recovering Autocrat." That's one
reason, although I'm proud of my education and work at NASA, I call myself
a "recovering engineer." Sometimes control is just an illusion. Some
days it's an enabling illusion -- some days it's not.

I never meant to say that things can't be measured, controlled, and
predicted. I probably meant to say that more things than I realize cannot
be. I'm learning to accept "luck" when it happens -- as a gift.

I once read about a man whose mother told him to always carry with him two
slips of paper -- one in each of this two coat side pockets. One said "I
am beautiful." The other said "I am ashes."

This is at the heart of the paradox where LO' ers live.

Now I can carry two slips of paper in my own pockets. One will say "I can
control and predict anything I choose." The other will say "I'm

A recent issue of "The Systems Thinker" featured an article written by
Donella Meadows about the nature of Systems. In that article she wrote
about immersing yourself in complex systems and getting their feel.
Letting them flow about you . Dancing with them. Getting to know and
understand them. That seems like good advice to me.

Thanks for allowing me to dig down inside.

Take care

John Dicus


John Dicus | CornerStone Consulting Associates - Leadership - Systems Thinking - Teamwork - Open Space - Electric Maze - 2761 Stiegler Road, Valley City, OH 44280 800-773-8017 | 330-725-2728 (2729 fax) |

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