Systems Talk With Robert: Understanding The Systems In Your Life
This is a guest post from Robert Wall of Untitled Minimalism.
I’ve been thinking lately about systems, particularly our irrational faith in them.
I’ve found that one of the keys to not tearing your hair out in frustration is to understand the systems you interact with, and (ultimately) what they want.
I’ll use McDonald’s as an example, since we’re all familiar with them.
McDonald’s Has A System
To sum it up quickly, they’ve developed a system that allows 16-year-old kids that don’t really care about their jobs to, with minimal supervision, churn out burgers and other food that tastes consistent and won’t kill anybody.
That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment when you think about it.
This system isn’t just a theoretical thing; it’s written down in a very large stack of binders that goes to all franchisees.
Want to know how to handle coupons? That’s in there. Procedure for calibrating the grill? That’s in there too.
You know the catchphrase, “would you like fries with that?” It’s part of the training system – it’s called “suggestive selling”.
In fact, if you were to walk into a McDonald’s with no prior knowledge whatsoever of how their operation works, you could be up and running in a day or two just by carefully studying the manuals.
What The System Wants
The twin goals of most any system are to minimize costs, and maximize profits. McDonald’s has elevated this to an art form.
Costs are minimized by tracking waste in all its forms. Decisions that typically require math and thought have been reduced to charts that can be used with no knowledge of the underlying concepts.
The number of employees on duty, for example, is compared to sales coming through the register, and then referenced against those charts. If the chart says somebody goes home, somebody goes home.
Most of this is done by rote, not by deep knowledge. My experience dictates that not one manager in ten could tell you how to calculate man-hours of labor if you asked them – even though they do it with their charts every day.
Why spend the time to deeply educate somebody when you can stamp out a human cog in a fraction of the time?
Products are procured as cheaply as possible, then assembled by employees that are (functionally) carbon copies of each other – human cogs in the machine.
This is all mind-blowingly consistent with the goals of the system.
What You Want
You want to walk into McDonald’s and plunk down a couple bucks for a cheeseburger. You generally want the food to be hot, you want it in a reasonable timeframe, and you want it to taste like it did last time.
You might even like being reminded that you didn’t order fries and a drink, who knows?
If these are your goals, you’ll be happy – because they’re exactly what the system wants.
When Worlds Collide
What’s that you say? You want the burger made with 95% lean ground beef? You’re about to be dissatisfied, and in a big way.
The system has considered using 95% lean ground beef, and calculated that it will inflate prices by fifty cents per burger. Since the system is set up to feed customers who have price as a primary concern, it rejects the 95% lean ground beef.
Your goals aren’t in harmony with the system, so you’re going to lose.
You want employees that are trained to think on their feet, and are empowered to help you? You’re in the wrong place – the system doesn’t want that.
You are, in a figurative sense, barking up the wrong tree.
Expecting Apples From A Cherry Tree
You can sit at the base of a cherry tree and wait for apples. You can coax, you can cajole, you can scream, you can rant. You can even try watering it, fertilizing it, and holding up pictures of apples.
It doesn’t matter. No apples will be forthcoming.
McDonald’s is the cherry tree. It’s tall, old, and has deep roots. The odds of it changing in response to anything you do are minimal.
Why does this come as a shock to us?
Go Find An Apple Tree!
The key to being reasonably happy in our current society is in finding systems whose principles are as close to yours as possible.
You’re probably not going to find a food-related business that’s not concerned with food waste and labor costs; that goes with the territory.
You may, however, be able to find a restaurant that treats their employees fairly, serves high-quality food, and tries to use recycled products as much as possible. I’d suggest that’s a good start.
Prices may well be higher, and that’s to be expected. By eliminating the aspects of the operation you don’t agree with, you’ve also eliminated the system that keeps prices low.
That’s part of the bargain.
The Real Question
I know that Gip and I have both spent quite a bit of time talking about systems, and that this may be confusing to some people.
The reason we keep coming back to systems is that they’re everywhere! Whether it’s your child’s school, your city’s government, or the places you shop, most of them are governed by a system of some sort.
The question isn’t one of if you participate in systems or not. They’re an unavoidable part of life.
The questions are, how much do you know about the systems you participate in? And knowing that, which ones are you a part of and why?
Robert says simple and deliberate things all the time at Untitled Minimalism. Stop by and see what he’s saying there today.