What system are you improving?

To create strongly-aligned, loyal customers, adjust your zoom and find the system they want you to improve.

What system are you improving?
Photo by Matt Benson / Unsplash

When you sell analytics to supply chains, you spend a lot of time thinking about physical systems and flows.

This made my first startup's target market a fascinating fit for me, a SimCity kid; the flows and grids of my virtual isometric world were now materialized and magnified into journeys I could touch, and in some cases, even smell.

Systems dictated by physical reality also had a way of forcing me, as an innovator in theory, to face the challenges of innovation in practice.

"True, but then what would we do?" the supervisor asked.

I had just finished explaining how much time our solution would save him, allowing his team to process their items in minutes, not hours.

"... we'd just end up sending more downstream than they can handle."


Not So Fast

Saving time ... is this another way to make things worse 🐙?!

Let's ask Dr. Ackoff:

A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts.

And what was I doing when I was treating this supervisor's step separately?  

Dividing the system into independent parts.  

The workflow worth everyone's attention, the system, wasn't this supervisor's step.  Yes, within his step he had things to do in order to contribute to the system — unloading trucks, let's say.  And yes, you may choose to call that a workflow — a series of work steps.  But in the context of the business system his superiors cared about, the one that produces the effects that matter to the enterprise, I wouldn't be helping by making his team faster in isolation.

Dr. Ackoff continues:

If we have a system of improvement that's directed at improving the parts taken separately, you can be absolutely sure that the performance of the whole will not be improved.  And that can be rigorously proven.  But most application of improvement programs are directed at the parts taken separately, not the whole.

Adjust Your Zoom

Complex systems, the kind you find inside the companies you're selling to, and inside the minds of consumers, are often recursive: nested inside this series of steps 🐙 is another series of steps.  Because our software starts out small — narrow in scope and feature impoverished, it's tempting to find the nooks, crannies, niches, and nodes in that vast system where you can make a measurable difference.

Unfortunately, just because a difference is measurable, and just because we've made an improvement to a visible part of the system, we can't be sure that we've created value.  Often, tools 🐙 that enhance one part of the system are eagerly purchased as "point solutions".  Circumventing long sales cycles, founders watch their revenue ramp, but excitement wanes and churn follows when the customer can't map the isolated improvement to the goals of the system it resides within.

In my case, I needed to see the bigger picture: the client's inbound logistics — how much inventory they can receive, unpack, and stock in a day.  Yes, unloading trucks is a vital part; but an improvement in isolation will just create a bottleneck that disturbs homeostasis.  For a consumer, will upgrading to more ingredients in their delivery really help them make better family-style meals?  More in the wrong places is less.

To create strongly-aligned, loyal customers, adjust your zoom and find the system they want you to improve.