Thinking in Systems – Book Review

I’ve been reading “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows recently. A good book, definitely worth my time (and yours probably as well). Among many interesting things I have found three, which draw my attention, because of some IT/programming connotations.

Big Black Box

Well, yes. A poem. It is about systems, but fits quite nicely to some of our experiences with software. So here it comes:

Kenneth Boulding (published in “General Systems as a Point of View”, 1963)

A system is a big black box
Of which we can't unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.
Perciving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes to relate
An input, output and a state.
If this relation's good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us - heaven forbid!
We'll be compelled to force the lid!

You See, You Care

In the book there is a short side-story about some Dutch families. To make this extremely short, I will tell you only that the electricity bills of families in the same neighbourhood differed by 1/3. All of them lived in very similar (if not same) houses. The only difference was the place the counter was located – in some cases it was hidden in the basement, while in other cases it was somewhere near the entrance. The “basement families” paid about 1/3 more than the “entrance families”. Why? The explanation is, that seeing the counter moving caused people to think more about the energy (and money!) saving. Period.

When I read this, the bell rang in my head: information radiators! It might be, that just by looking at the status of CI jobs, or some important production metrics, we tend to care more about the products we create. Wow!

Drift to Lower Performance / Eroding Goals

Another interesting point taken from this book is about the systems drifting towards low performance:

“Drift to low performance is a gradual process. If the system state plunged quickly, there would be an agitated corrective process. But if it drifts down slowly enough to erase the memory of (or belief in) how much better things used to be, everyone is lulled into lower and lower expectations, lower effort, lower performance.”

And the “way out” of this trap, is to “keep performance standards absolute”. Avoid excuses like: “Well, we’re not doing much worse than we were last year.” Avoid lowering your standards because you are out of time. Keep them high.

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