The image of workers framed by a steel lattice—particularly with the number painted on the beam in the upper left corner—calls to mind one of the many lessons learned from the Apollo space program. Systems management. For this office building—system—to exist it had first to be envisioned. And then, for that vision to be realized, every part had to be specified. In this image we mostly see the steel girders, each of which had to be designed, manufactured and tested before they could be shipped to the site. Only then could the construction team be confident that the parts would fit together in all the right places.
In my television and video production classes I often cited the Apollo space program for its contribution to systems theory. Unfortunately, the lesson that complex systems require coordination and integration cost the lives of three astronauts when the Apollo I command module burned during a test. Over 10,000 people had worked on that project. After a year-long investigation it was discovered that a wire, not properly insulated, sparked and ignited the cabin filled with 100% oxygen and highly flammable materials. According to the report, NASA failed to “overall coordinate and integrate” its systems. The sub-contractors produced good working parts, but beyond fitting together and performing as they should, no one was attending to their potential for incidentally creating a disaster.
Going forward with managers who understood what it takes to manage complex systems, NASA and Boeing created a “Technical Integration and Evaluation” (TIE) program to insure that every part would—beyond functioning and fitting together properly—not adversely affect the mission in any way. Boeing, working with NASA in an advisory capacity, hired an additional 2,000 people who coordinated thousands of contractors and assessed the viability of each sub-system in relation to the functionality of the whole. Because someone was now paying attention to the parts and how they would relate to each other and the whole, NASA was able to fulfill President Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon within the decade.
The systems strategy of paying attention to a system’s parts and understanding how they relate to—and as a whole, has enabled NASA to accomplish all that it has. At its peak it employed 400,000 people and 20,000 contractors. And the lessons learned have transferred to many other industries. The design and manufacturing of airplanes, ships, automobiles, televisions, cell phones and roller-coasters are all contextualized within the framework of whole systems. Doing so significantly minimizes failures and breakdowns, but of course human error can still affect the outcome.
Systems thinking has enjoyed outstanding success in the areas of technology, manufacturing, construction, commerce and special interest groups, but there isn’t much evidence of it in government. The military, arguably, might be an exception. In large part I think it’s because we, as a nation, are struggling with issues of coordination and integration. In order to know how the components of society—business, the arts, media, religion, health, banking, etc.—can fit and function together there has to be a common understanding of who we are as a people. (Part of the job of the President of the United States is to contribute to our national self-definition.) We’re not there yet. And then we need to see ourselves whole, as one living system working toward a desirable and shared vision of the future. Who are we as a species? As a nation? Beyond what can be done or built, what is wise to do or build? And for what purpose? To my mind, engineer and systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller, was spot on when he identified humanity’s role as stewards of “Spaceship Earth,” a species challenged with the task of “building a world that works for everyone.” In a similar vein and on a national scale, systems manager, Richard C. Dorf, wrote that “The task before us is to create a just, sustainable and compassionate society that works for all on a finite living planet.”
NASA has been able to accomplish its missions because it continuously addresses the fundamental systemic questions of identity, purpose and vision before the organization even gets into the practical tasks of coordination and integration. Another example is the motion picture industry. Movies could not be made—and surely would not succeed at the box office—were it not for individuals who have a clear vision of the whole—usually the writer—and the producer and director who are charged with effectively managing the coordination and integration of the parts in order to realize the vision. Systemically speaking, the ideal situation is when the visionary and system’s manager is one and the same person. George Lucas and James Cameron are noteworthy examples.
It’s easy to see the need for coordination and integration in large systems. Their complexity is obvious. Unless we’re engaged in such systems they are largely invisible and involve other people at a distance. We’re less likely to think of the various domains of our own lives as systems, but whenever and wherever we interact with others effectiveness and satisfaction can be improved by situating them in systems terms. Signing up to substitute teach, contributing to a neighborhood garden, serving on a community planning committee, establishing retirement or end of life documents, renovating a home, creating a performance, planning a wedding and building a career—these are social systems. For the interaction to go smoothly and have a positive outcome, someone needs to champion the whole and manage the parts in a way that everything works.
Books have been written on the “How to—“ aspects of systems management. My purpose here is simply to appreciate it and look for ways to apply its principles in everyday living. I do observe however, from personal experience, that a prerequisite for effective management at every level requires consideration of the fundamental questions of identity, purpose and vision. Who am I? What part am I playing in this situation? Where are we—as a group, team or family—going? What is the best strategy for getting us there? And how do we define success? Coordination can begin when these questions are answered. Then comes the questions of integration. Who will lead us? Ideally, it will be the person who most clearly sees and takes responsibility for the vision as a whole. How will we work together? What will we accomplish—and when? How will we test the parts and then the integrated whole? What will keep us motivated? And what will be our reward?
When driving past a large construction site, my first thought usually has to do with what it will be and how fast the structure is being built. Now, as a result of this reflection, I want instead to think about and appreciate the envisioning and the magnitude of considerations involved in coordinating and integrating its parts. I’m reminded of one of the tenants of the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path. Systems management is the task of establishing “Right Relationship.” Throughout.
We must now look to living systems as our teacher, for our survival depends on discovering new ways of living—and making our living—that embody life’s wisdom.
ABOUT THIS IMAGE
Title: Office Building Construction
File #: 073-A3
For those familiar with downtown Cincinnati, this is the steel framework for what became the home offices of the Fifth Third Bank, situated on the north side of Fountain Square. I was driving past it on the south side of the square when I saw what was happening. I pulled over, turned on the blinking emergency lights and rolled down the window. Cars and trucks passed in front of me, so in between the vehicles I focused my 2 1/4 square format camera on the workers in the distance, stopped the aperture down to gain some depth of field and waited for an opening in the traffic. I was pleased with how the workers were dwarfed by the steel framework and spread out against the light background.
When I was ranking my images according to aesthetics this image only got two out of five stars. Now, because it deepens my appreciation of the theme presented here, I have upgraded it to four.
I particularly love this contemplation. Large systems integration and coordination is such a complex topic and something I’ve studied with educational systems. I love the NASA example and think it’s powerfully hopeful that our government had an internal example of success. I notice though that it took a disaster what the threat of losing future lives that they scaled up efforts significantly to address the problem they had identified. We continue as a country to clearly define the problem – a critical first step in a vision. Fascinating reflections!!