Our ability to deal with our problems is directly related to how we think about our problems. This reflection occurred to me after spending time educating quality engineers on the first principles of quality at the organization we work for. Building spacecraft presents myriad issues ranging from simple rework back to print requirement to complex problems requiring investigation and many levels of review and approval. Knowing first principles for a discipline can guide decision making. Knowing the direction to take is important but is insufficient to be successful. We also need to know how to drive the proverbial bus. Systems thinking coupled with guiding principles is a very useful combination and approach in confronting our issues whether big or small.
Systems thinking is a shift from normalcy. It is a standing back to observe without judgement and orient ourselves to pertinent information in lieu of snappy decisions without consideration of long-term consequences. Systems thinking in the most general terms is to consider multiple perspectives. A system accomplishes a purpose through the use of interacting components that interface in different ways with the environment and/or other systems. It is this later part of putting things in the context of the larger whole where we can all benefit especially if we understand the first or guiding principles of behavior governing the system or ourselves.
System properties are properties of pattern. When we are faced with any issue, the first step is to observe the patterns and gather information. If we short circuit this step, we undermine our ability to solve our problems and invite recurrence of our issues. Formulating a picture of the problem with the available information creates a model in our heads. This model is the starting point of systems thinking. To generate solutions to our problems having long-term benefit without recurrence of the issue takes a few more steps. With a model of our problem in our head, we have to ask a few questions like:
• What caused our problem to occur?
• How does this problem interact with us, others, and other problems?
• If we make a change, what will happened to the system, our interactions, or components?
• Is our behavior related to the problem?
• Do our values or first principles affect the problem at hand?
• Do specific aspects of our problem relate to the system, ourselves or others?
The questions we ask about our problems once we have a clear picture of the issues directly effect the solution and potential outcomes. In the risk aware industry of building spacecraft, our ability to question and work with multiple perspectives, determine how successful our missions will be. This is true when building spacecraft or going about our lives. If we don’t ask questions in school, we stunt our learning. If we don’t ask questions at an interview or when we start a new job, we limit our careers. If we don’t ask questions of a potential mate, we effect the viability of our long-term relationship. From this I conclude that asking questions about our problems has a direct impact of our biz. For us to manage our biz, we necessarily need to stand back, observe, and orient ourselves with questions about our particular situation whether it be problematic or not. Our first hurdle is to observe without judgement. Some of us have significant trouble getting past this first step. Being patient to continue observing is another hurdle. As far as orienting ourselves to what’s important, we have to know what is important to us. We have to know what our values are in order to use them as guide posts on the meandering path of our life. Other guide posts include our mission or vision for our life. Knowing our resources of time, energy and attention is another critical factor in addressing the situations arising in our lives. These guide posts are the basic principles of organization in our lives just as the first principles of quality are the guide posts for engineers to make beneficial decisions for spacecraft or customers in any given industry. Taking time to step back and see the whole picture is how we review our progress and make changes to speed up our adaptations.
One of my managers once said “we have to slow down, so we can speed up.” For the longest time, I found this to be oxymoronic, but there is wisdom in it nonetheless. Using our available time to direct our attention and energy to what’s important and to what has long-term benefit in our lives, helps us to achieve the life we want quicker than if we do not. Sometimes we simply need to think about how we think in order for us to figure out how to better handle the situations requiring us to adapt and evolve. Not doing so insulates us from change and before long we are left behind.
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