May 28, 2024



By Carmen Greger

“To understand is to perceive patterns,” said the historian Isaiah Berlin. At the heart of these patterns, one often finds the intricate dance of systems. From the coordinated rhythm of our heartbeat to the vast interplay of global economies, systems are the lifeblood of existence, innovation, and progress.

What are Systems?

In essence, systems are interconnected and interdependent groups of items forming a unified whole. They are mechanisms designed to fulfill a certain purpose, whether it be the biological system of digestion or the structured system of public transportation.

The Essence of Systems: Why They Matter

“Order is not pressure which is imposed on society from without, but an equilibrium which is set up from within.” – José Ortega y Gasset

Systems orchestrate the complexity of life. They:

  • Provide Structure: Systems offer a roadmap. For businesses, this could be a standard operating procedure ensuring quality and consistency.
  • Enable Efficiency: They streamline processes. Take the circulatory system: it delivers oxygen to billions of cells with astonishing precision and speed.
  • Enhance Collaboration: Systems allow various components to function in harmony. Consider global supply chains, where multiple entities come together to deliver a product.

Optimizing Life & Business with Systems

  • Predictability: Implementing systems in business can lead to predictable outcomes. For instance, McDonald’s uses the same system worldwide, ensuring that your Big Mac tastes the same whether you’re in Tokyo or Toronto.
  • Accountability: Defined systems assign roles and responsibilities, reducing ambiguity.
  • Innovation: With a stable system in place, companies can focus on pioneering new ideas. Apple’s product development system, with its emphasis on design and user experience, has kept it at the forefront of innovation.

The Imperative Evolution of Systems

However, as Charles Darwin opined, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Systems, like species, must adapt or risk obsolescence.

When Systems Stagnate

  • Inefficiency: Old systems can become sluggish. For instance, legacy computer systems can slow down operations and productivity.
  • Injustice: Systems not updated to reflect societal changes can perpetuate inequality. Historic redlining policies, though now illegal, still affect housing patterns in the US today.
  • Irrelevance: Blockbuster, resistant to the digital streaming system, was left in the dust by Netflix’s evolving model.

Ensuring Modern, Just, and Functional Systems

Regular Review: At set intervals, evaluate systems for relevance, efficacy, and fairness. Germany, for instance, reviews its constitution every 10 years to ensure its pertinence.

Diverse Input: Incorporate diverse perspectives to avoid blind spots. Studies show that companies with diverse management have a 19% higher revenue due to innovation.

Feedback Loops: Encourage open communication. Feedback allows real-time adaptation. Toyota’s production system is renowned for its “andon cord,” which any employee can pull to halt production if they spot an issue, ensuring quality and continuous improvement.

The Health & Science of Systems

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo da Vinci

A healthy system is responsive, adaptable, and equitable. The science of systems, or systems thinking, encourages viewing things holistically, understanding how parts influence one another within a whole.

For instance, the health of our ecosystem is not just about one factor, like air quality, but the entire interconnected web of life. When one system (e.g., bee populations) fails, it can cascade through other systems, affecting crop pollination, food supply, and economies.

What Good is a Broken System?

A broken system can lead to far-reaching consequences. According to the World Bank, inefficiencies in the global health system lead to a waste of approximately $1.6 trillion annually. This is not just a number. This translates to medicines not reaching those in need, underfunded research, and avoidable illnesses and deaths.

A broken system isn’t merely a theoretical problem; it manifests in tangible ways with far-reaching consequences for individuals, communities, and nations. Some examples that emphasize the significance of addressing and amending dysfunctional systems are: The Flint Water Crisis, The Global Financial Crisis (2008), Education System Disparities, The Criminal Justice System & Recidivism, Waste Management & Environmental Pollution, and Healthcare Access.

Moving Forward

These examples are not just case studies but are real-world instances that have changed lives, often not for the better. However, with each broken system comes an opportunity – a chance to re-evaluate, innovate, and rebuild. History is replete with tales of communities and nations that have turned systemic failures into stepping stones for progress. The call to action for governments, businesses, and communities is clear: identify these failing systems and make the concerted effort to mend them, ensuring a better, fairer, and more prosperous future for all.

The Symphony Continues

For systems to truly serve humanity, they must be in a constant state of evolution, molding to the needs of the ever-changing global landscape. Let’s not forget, even the most majestic symphonies require occasional fine-tuning. Let us commit to ensuring our systems are continuously tuned to the harmonious melody of fairness, efficiency, and progress.