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Systems in action: Avoiding the traps

Updated Wednesday 18th May 2005

How can systems practice help you to avoid falling into common business traps?

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"We're looking at people in a very, very different way, not as a mechanical breakdown, but as a whole being - body, mind and spirit."


Copyright The Open University


This is a fairly standard representation of the human body, and it’s used by doctors to diagnose illness and to treat people, and used very successfully.  But sometimes people get stuck into a particular illness, they keep getting it over and over again, or they get stuck into a pattern of illness that repeats over many years.  And in those circumstances it really doesn’t help to keep on looking at the body in the same way.  You need a different representation of the body, and indeed a different way of diagnosis and a different way of treating people.  There is a different way of looking at the body, which is used by acupuncturists, and it’s represented on this chart.  It shows the meridians which run through the body, the lines of energy, and the points at which the needles are inserted to give treatment.

Meriel Derby
The Chinese observed that as well as all the other systems of our body, like the circulation system, the nervous system and so on, that there was another system of what they called key energy running through our bodies, and this energy runs through us in 14 main channels, and 10 of these penetrate one of our inner organs.  So each organ is fed all the time by a flow of energy through what they called a meridian, these pathways of energy they called meridians.  So if you get any kind of blockage or impediment in the flow of energy in one of these meridians, you’re likely to get a recurrent symptom that in some way connects with the organ that is being blocked.  Our task is to find out where this blockage is and get the energy flowing again, so that the body then heals itself really.

Supposing there’s a blockage on the liver meridian, now the very initial symptom that appears may be absolutely nothing to do with the liver itself as an organ at all, it could be something like a little skin rash that is the liver meridian saying look all isn’t quite well with me.  And what we would do with normal orthodox medicine would be probably to get a cortisone cream and to rub that cream on the rash and magically it disappears and you think you’re healed.  But meanwhile the blockage in the liver meridian is still there.  And this time it has to send up a symptom probably a bit more demanding and perhaps a migraine headache or something like that.  And again we will try and suppress the symptom because it’s very horrible and uncomfortable to have a migraine, and we’ll take pills and we’ll keep it sort of at bay.  And again the liver meridian is left unheard really; the cause of the problem isn’t being reached.  And this time it will send up a symptom that will directly pertain to the liver itself, it will say hey look it’s me, the liver, that’s in trouble.  And this time it could be something quite severe like sclerosis of the liver or cancer of the liver, something pretty bad.

Now this whole process will probably have taken fifteen years.  I mean the onset of disease is very very slow, it doesn’t happen just like that that you have cancer, there is a great number of warning signs. 

Tell me what happens when you first see a patient, what do you do?

Meriel Derby
Well we have a very long initial interview, which is something that people aren’t really used to because doctors are so busy they don’t really have enough time to give us that kind of attention.  So we’ll spend sort of about an hour and a half to two hours with a new patient, and really we want to know anything or everything that they’re willing to share.  I mean we want to get to know this person in as much depth as possible.  So we’ll ask them about anything from their early history, their childhood, their emotional life, their work.  And often at the end of it they’ll say ah I see now what’s gone wrong - like they’ll do their own diagnosis almost just from having heard their own story.  It’s a lovely thing to do, and it also creates a very good relationship between the practitioner and the patient. 

The body has a tremendous desire to heal, there’s a terrific natural force of healing that’s there all the time ready to be motivated in our physical body.  The mind’s a very different story.  The mind hates pain and doesn’t want to listen to what it’s trying to tell it at all.  And the mind really likes the system of taking a pill and getting rid of it very quickly, and it’s impatient and doesn’t want to go through this slow process of healing that is necessary if one’s going to get really well. 

And the last one, that’s it, well done.  If one’s going to look for the cause and go for cure not just palliation.

I have this image of the body healing itself as a kind of active image, is it ever passive, when it gets stuck does it stop doing that or does it just do it badly?

Meriel Derby
Yes indeed it does, I mean one can get to a sort of state where these meridians are so blocked up that however much you want to do to help yourself, however hard you work on yourself, however much you try to change your situation, you’re actually stuck because the energy is stuck.  And so you’re really in a no win situation, and until we can release some of the flow of these meridians you really can’t change anything about yourself or in your life.

When an acupuncturist looks at a sick person they’re not really looking at the disease as such, we’re not really interested in the pathology or what’s gone wrong particularly in physical terms, like how to name the disease.  You could say that in the West we say now what kind of disease has this person got, and in the East we say what kind of person has got this disease?  So really we’re looking at people in a very, very different way, not a sort of mechanical breakdown but as a whole being; body, mind and spirit. 



"It has helped having an independent chairman … he comes here once a month and he makes us sit back and look at these problems."


Copyright The Open University


The success of this light engineering company is vital to the prosperity of the small town where it’s based, and to the livelihood of its 60 employees.

Edward Elworthy, Stephen Clark Fabrications Ltd
My partner, Malcolm, and I bought into the company in 1979, and we run it together.  We don’t actually have a managing director; we each have areas of responsibility, which we have divided up between us.

Malcolm McNab, Stephen Clark Fabrications Ltd
In ‘79 we were, Edward and I were able to meet quite frequently over a cup of coffee or a bite of lunch or whatever, and discuss the problems we had and the ways in which we were going to answer those problems, and communicate together in terms of what we were both doing and were planning to do.  That has become increasingly difficult as the company’s grown.

We found that it left areas which we were not covering ourselves, rather like a game of tennis, a doubles game of tennis where there’s a ball down the middle between you, neither of you go for it, and you both look at each other and blame each other for not going for it, sometimes blame.  We found that we were having problems, problem areas which neither of us was tackling, and we were leaving them thinking the other will pick it up, and the other didn’t.

Probably the biggest example we’ve ever had was putting in a very big piece of equipment for us at that time, which was a new CNC controlled punch press, in that we did not plan it properly because neither of us took actual responsibility for it and, as a result, its installation was more haphazard.  It was very easy to sign the cheque for it and very easy to order it and to get it installed, but how it was managed was a completely different problem to tackle.  And as a result, to begin with it wasn’t really managed.  We recognised it, that it wasn’t operating very efficiently, and we started to plan together to get it installed effectively and to make sure it worked as efficiently as we could make it work.  It has helped tremendously to improve our throughput and it certainly removed one of the bottlenecks in the factory.

Sometimes solutions can be traps themselves.  Just buying the new machine might have looked like enough but it highlighted a set of management and communications problems.  Now these have been solved, Edward can see another trap with even wider implications.

It’s a funny part of our business that when the factory is very busy we tend to be letting down customers because we take on more work than we should, and we don’t meet our delivery dates.  The factory is going quietly berserk trying to get work out and the customers are shouting at us.  It works best at that time because when customers are shouting at us they’re shouting at Malcolm and I, and the buck stops with us and the customer gets on to us and says, “Where’s my job?”  And he wants it.  So we go out on the shop floor and we start agitating to get these jobs through.  So with our input on the shop floor things do tend to happen slightly more precipitously than they would otherwise, and I think that it’s this that creates a greater degree of productivity and profitability when we are actually letting down customers. 

All this time on the factory floor does make the place run much more effectively, but at a cost.  Edward and Malcolm have less time to devote to strategic problems.  They’ve found ways of tackling these now and, interestingly, the solutions weren’t of the kind you’d first think of.  As usual, the way out of a trap isn’t obvious until you’ve thought of it.

It has helped having an independent chairman who we introduced some five years ago.  We both respect him, we both actually worked for him in the past and we both respect him and he comes here once a month, and he makes us sit back and look at these problems.  And the discipline that he forces on us is very important to us, and it works.






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