every system is perfect

‘Systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results they get’ – Organizational Scientist, Marvin Weisbord

I had an interesting discussion with my wife recently about the ‘mail sorting system’ in our house.  The system consists of a plastic container on our kitchen counter next to a powerful paper shredder and the goal is to make it as simple as possible for us to enter the house with the mail and sort it immediately to avoid a large build-up of mail.

In the ideal scenario, the outcome of this system would be that we are always up to date with the shredding of junkmail, filing of important documents and general sorting of mail.  Instead, our counter looks like this:

The content of our discussion can be summarized as follows:

I think we need a better system

My wife thinks she needs to comply better with the system

Because we are both analytical people the discussion was rich with strong rational for each viewpoint but I had a hard time articulating the essence of my argument.

The quote at the beginning of this article very elegantly encapsulates what I think about our mail sorting system – it is doing exactly what it is designed to do because part of the design of a system takes into account the constraints that actors of a system will perform.

So the best way to measure the suitability of a system is to look at its results and not what it is supposed to be doing.  Its design is perfect for the outcomes it is yielding.

In the case of our mail sorting system, it doesn’t properly account for the fact that when my wife brings the mail into the house, she has a screaming 6-month old who most likely needs a feeding and two other young kids (four and six year olds) in tow.  Her priorities in that moment are not to shred the credit card offer from Chase or to file away that medical bill – its to get everybody settled down and fed.  So her default action is to place the mail – all of it – into the plastic container with no further action.

Repeat this several days in a row and she ends up with a pretty intimidating pile of mail to sort and she begins feeling like it is a much larger task that she needs to set aside time for.

But don’t forget the 6-month, four and six year olds haven’t gone anywhere – so there is no time to ‘set aside’ … so the pile just keeps growing and growing.

The solution? I don’t have one yet, but I think this is a perfect candidate for the two rules of simplicity.

We have to start by looking holistically at the problem and trying different approaches with constant tweaking until we find a system that perfectly yields the result we want.