Systems Thinking – System Archetypes – Shifting the Burden

We’ve been talking about system archetypes and will focus on that topic again in this post. We’re going to look at the system archetype called “Shifting the Burden.” First, a little review. A system archetype is a system that recurs over and over in many different settings and industries.

Shifting the Burden centers around shifting the burden from solving a problem to solving a symptom. It starts with the awareness of a problem. The awareness comes from the observation of some symptom of that problem. At the point of observation you have a choice. You can either choose to put out the fire and resolve the symptom, or you can do a more protracted problem solving exercise and get to the root-cause and solve the problem. Under the time constraints of modern business we oftentimes choose the former and put out the fire. We measure success using the fact that the symptom goes away and we can get back to our urgent regular work.

Shifting the burden from solving a problem to solving a symptom results in an addiction cycle. We treat the symptom and, because we haven’t solved the problem, the problem recurs as a fire. As we rely more on solving symptoms instead of problems, more and more fires recur and we find ourselves in perpetual firefighting. As we are perpetually firefighting we have less time to spend on solving problems so we’re more inclined to solve symptoms. As we do this, our ability to actually root-cause problems and solve them at their root atrophies. It is a side affect of the addiction cycle.

For example, say you have a customer service group. Let’s say that over the course of the last three months the number of calls into the call center has increased by 25% and the customer service groups is suffering low morale because of it–long hours and hostile customers. The problem at this point really is unknown. No one has investigated it. It could be as simple as an unclear instruction manual for a new product that’s been released. But, in the interest in getting the call center morale problem resolved the company invests in capacity for the call center. With more people in the call center morale improves and the symptom goes away, but the underlying problem remains…probably to recur at some point in the near future.

The “Shifting the Burden” archetype has an antidote. The antidote is to recognize when you’re applying Band-Aids–to recognize when you’re just solving the symptom–and to follow up that with a deep root-cause problem solving exercise. Of course, to be able to do this, you need a competency and capability of solving root-cause problems. This could be PDCA or, as EAC promotes, the LAMDA learning cycle.


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