Systems Thinking Tools: fixes that fail!

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My last few posts focused on systems thinking as a necessary means of understanding complex, real-world problems.

  1. Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.
  2. Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presented one of the simplest and most useful tools to help you get started.
  3. Systems Thinking Tools: Finding the Root Cause of BIG Problems presented a way of thinking about problems that “just won’t go away”

I’ve been thinking a lot about systems science lately as I prepare to teach a new course in Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass.  This post on Fixes That Fail was triggered by a radio interview I participated in a few weeks ago on WBUR in Boston in which University of Toronto Professor Pierre Desrochers, co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, claimed the growth of the local food system was a dangerous trend.  He said things like…

“If everything was so great when most food was sourced locally centuries ago, why did we go through the trouble of developing a globalized food supply chain?

And….

“If widely adopted, either voluntarily or through political mandates, locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety and much more significant environmental damage than is presently the case.”

According to Desrochers, we must globalize the entire food system to maximize economic efficiency, keep food prices as cheap as possible, and avoid the ecological disaster that he claims will be caused by local food.  He believes local food will only be accessible to rich people and that poor people benefit from the global food system.

My response on the radio proposed a balanced approach, in which there was room in the marketplace for local, regional, national and global food.  Desrochers claimed that a little bit of poison (referring to local food) is still poison.   Hmmmmmmm…. not much room for negotiation!

Lots of folks have punched holes in Desrochers’ academic thesis, so I won’t bother.  I’d prefer to use his theory to help understand how the Fixes That Fail tool can help us understand a complex system.  Specifically, we’ll examine the flaw in the argument that the corporately controlled global food system is necessary and beneficial to people with a limited income.

Fixes That Fail

Okay, so the reason some arguments make sense is that if you don’t consider the whole system… well, they make sense.  Desrochers argues that poor people benefit from the global food system because large corporations have produced lots of cheap food.  In systems language we would depict it like this:

We would read this systems model as follows… “as the problem symptom increases, the fix increases (S = moves in the same direction).  As the
“easy fix” increases, the problem symptom decreases (O = moves in the opposite direction).”   This is called a balancing feedback loop (labeled B).

Applying this balancing loop to Desroches thesis, we would say “as financial stress or poverty increases, people will buy more food from the global corporate food system (the fix).  And as the fix increases, financial stress will decrease.  And of course on an individual basis this is true.  People experiencing financial stress should surely buy food from the least expensive source, and that is generally a corporate food store (not always however).

Here is the problem.   When we look at the larger system we can see that the globalized corporate food system is NOT a solution but in fact part of the cause of the problem.  The corporate system drives down wages and moves jobs overseas, CREATING not preventing poverty.  In systems language this is called an “unintended consequence” of the system.

The Unintended Consequence

First some facts from a recent report on jobs in the global food system:

  1. About 20 million people in the U.S. work in some aspect of the food system.  This is about 1/6 of the total workforce.
  2. Most jobs in the food system offer low wages with little access to health benefits and opportunities for advancement. Only 13.5 percent of all U.S. food workers surveyed earned a livable wage.

So the global food system that provides lots of cheap food does so on the backs of poorly paid workers (and exploitation of the environment – but that is another story). Global food corporations represent a “Fix That Fails” and would be depicted in systems language like this:

Cheap food from the global food system (easy fix) does in fact alleviate poverty (problem symptom) in the short term.  It also increases poverty in the long run by reducing opportunities for people to earn a livable wage.  The problem is that there is a “delay” before the unintended consequence (fewer well-paid jobs) is experienced and it may not be obvious that the cause of the unintended consequence is in fact the “easy fix” itself.  This second loop is called a reinforcing feedback loop (Iabeled R).  This model reads “as the easy fix increases, the unintended consequence increases (moves in the same direction) and thus increases the problem symptom.  Hey, that’s not what we intended!

The lower prices generated by the corporate food system does so by driving down wages (ask anyone who works for a big box store or a fast food restaurant) and moving jobs overseas (where wages are lower and health and safety regulations are nonexistent).  Thus the so-called “fix” actually increases the original problem (financial stress).

We know that real job growth in the U.S. comes from small, local businesses not corporations.  Those businesses that are cooperatively managed have the additional advantage of providing a decent wage and participation in ownership for the workers.  The larger the corporation, the more likely it is to “outsource” jobs to overseas markets.  Corporations (and their rich owners and shareholders) do not create more good jobs in the U.S – it just the opposite!

Further, corporate retail sales drain money from the community to make financial investors more money.  When we shop locally, we support our neighbors.  When we shop at national food chains, we support people wealthy enough to make investments in the corporation (stockholders and upper level management).

Conclusion

The globalized, corporate food system is a CAUSE not the solution to poverty!

It is in fact a fix that has failed……

The Fixes That Fail model is called a systems archetype, that is, something that happens over and over again in human behavior.  There are lots of other examples, such as:

  1. Putting out small forest fires actually is the cause of big fires (because there is more flammable material when it does burn).
  2. Widening a road to prevent accidents actually causes more accidents (because people drive faster).
  3. Saving money by not repairing a roof on a house actually costs more money (eventually).
  4. Borrowing money to pay the interest cost on loans (bad idea).

These are all obvious when you understand the Fixes That Fail archetype, which we teach as part of systems thinking.  The solution is always advanced planning to avoid the situation in the first place.   Of course, this isn’t possible in the U.S. food system, as it has already been thoroughly globalized.  Estimates of the extent of local food purchases range from 1 to 4 percent of total agricultural sales nationally.  We are already a victim of the problem of almost total corporate control of our food supply and nobody in authority seems to have noticed!

The answer must be a shift in personal behavior AND public policy to help grow the local food system.  I’ve written about this in other blog posts:

  1. Just Food Now: Public Opportunities and Responsibilities presents policy alternatives for government, colleges and community groups.
  2. Just Food Now: Taking Personal Responsibility examines ways in which individuals may help.

I believe the policy and the personal approaches are both important.  Unless we make a personal commitment to local food, we will not have the political will to implement the necessary policy changes.  We must occupy the food system.  We must also maintain a social safety net for people with limited income while we shift the balance toward a more local economy which will provide more livable wage employment.

Personally, I don’t believe we face the many dangers Desroches describes in his book.  I don’t expect we will ever (nor should we) completely eliminate global food trade as he threatens.   I’d just like to see a little more balance.  But what about you?  What would you propose to address this fix that failed?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.

 

Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems

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I’ve been thinking a lot about systems science lately as I prepare to teach a new course in Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass.  My last two posts focused on systems thinking as a necessary means of understanding and addressing complex, real-world problems.

Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presents one of the simplist and most useful tools to help you get started.

This post examines how we can use systems thinking to understand the root cause(s) of complex problems (you know the BIG ones, like poverty, hunger, social inequity, environmental degradation, food safety……).  Lets see how this might work!

An Example

A few days ago, I got an email from one of my “foodie” listserves telling me that the Dole Food Company had recalled thousands of bags of pre-cut salad due to concerns about contamination by the bacteria listeria.

In fact, the Blomberg Businessweek Report stated:

“Dole Food Co.’s fresh vegetable unit has recalled more than 1,000 cases of bagged salads sold at Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in six states because of the possibility of listeria contamination.

“No illnesses have been reported.

“A representative for Dole could not be immediately reached for further comment.”

Okay, so that is interesting but might easily be overlooked (as long as you were not in one of the 6 states where the bagged salad had already been sold).   If you looked a little closer you might learn from the FDA statement that…

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea.

If we look at the frequency of food recalls, we might be surprised.  The Dole salad recall was NOT an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern that has become “the new normal” in the American food system.

Last week’s recall provides an opportunity to use a systems thinking tool to discover possible root causes for the recurrence of food contamination.  I’ve written about the “iceberg” tool earlier.

Here is a simple model depicting the relationship among events, patterns – and the structures (below the water line) that create an environment in which these patterns persist (even when they may not be in our best interest). If we apply the iceberg tool to this particular food recall, we can see that:

  1. The bagged salad recall is the event
  2. Multiple recalls of food every day is the pattern

So, next we will ask “what are the structures that result in the recurring patterns?”

Finding Structures

Structures are relatively permanent components of human organization that create patterns and events.  For example, a stop light at a cross roads and the government policy that requires drivers to stop at a red light are structures that result in a specific pattern of behavior.   Structures are powerful.  I described systemic structures in a previous blog. Structures are:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

In the case of fresh food recalls, these structures represent all that is good and bad about industrial agriculture, which is a system in which the farm is viewed as a machine (a very efficient and profitable one but still a machine) rather than a living system.  Some of the structures that result in food recalls are:

  1. Large corporate farms with the primary objective of making a profit
  2. Monoculture farming that creates large amounts of single food items
  3. Mechanically assisted harvest equipment (that spread bacteria)
  4. Washing and handling equipment that handles enormous quantities of fresh food quickly in shared water baths
  5. The corporately controlled global food distribution system that ships products by truck, rail, air and boat anywhere in the world
  6. The Food and Drug Administration inspection system and the policies that test, track and recall potentially contaminated food

These structures which support a very efficient industrial agricultural system will ALWAYS result in food recalls. To eliminate food recalls we have to change the structures that create an environment in which recalls are inevitable.

Recent efforts to do a better job tracking adulterated food have been proposed but do not address the root cause of the problem.   Proposals to irradiate food treat the problem after the contamination has occurred.  A recent British study on global food safety titled “Root Cause Analysis” missed the mark and only focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the same structures that ALWAYS result in food recalls.  Root causes are poorly understood.

To find root causes, you have to go deeper than the structures in the iceberg model.  Structures are created by how and what we think or “mental models“.

Finding root causes of patterns of behavior means we need to dig down to the level of mental models.  Once we understand the thinking that produces the structures that result in certain patterns of behavior, we can make better decisions.  In this case, the answer to reducing food recalls (along with many other problems created by industrial agriculture) is to create a safer and more sustainable food and farming system.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Systems Thinking Tools: the mind map

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My last blog, Learning to Think Like a Mountain, introduced “systems thinking” as a useful means of understanding why “linear thinking” is inadequate when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making and uncertainty.

This post introduces one of the simplest and most useful of all the systems thinking tools, the mind map.  There are many variations of this tool, including concept mapping and spider diagramming but they are all generally used to view multiple, complex (non-linear) relationships in a system.  One of the failures of industrial agriculture is the assumption that it functions as a machine, with inputs (seeds, sun, fertilizer) that flow into a farm and outputs (food, fiber) flowing out.

This simple, linear understanding (which Annie Leonard described so well in the popular video The Story of Stuff) is inadequate as we work toward an agroecological frame for agricultural sustainability.  The mechanistic, linear view will rarely account for questions about environmental justice, decay of soil health, offsite impacts of pesticides, or vitality of rural communities, which may be discounted as “externalities.”  These perspectives, will on the other hand, be considered using systems thinking.

The mind map is also a nice tool for telling a story, such as how a household designed on permaculture (or ecological) principles is likely to view a “cup of tea.”

Instructions

To get started, you simply pick a topic and depict it either in words or a symbol in the middle of a page.  Here is a mind map of how to mind map.

Viewing the entire diagram, most people can easily get a sense of what a mind map is all about rather quickly.  Some suggestions on how to get started are:

  1. Start in the center with a description of the topic or theme
  2. Write whatever comes to mind next as a “sub-topic” and draw a connecting line, do it again, and again….
  3. Use images and symbols as much as possible
  4. Select key words and print clearly
  5. Each word/image should sit on its own line or inside its own bubble
  6. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image.  Important connections between concepts in different sub-section should be indicated
  7. Use colors to code for key ideas or sub-systems (sections of the map)
  8. Use thinker lines to indicate more important connections
  9. Put the most important ideas are near the center (its a hierarchy of ideas)
  10. Do it your own way!

Using Mind Maps in Agricultural Systems

Mind maps are useful tools for beginning to understand a complex system (like a farm).  The following is a mind map of a community farm in Waltham, MA developed by a student taking our online class, Sustainable Agriculture.   To try to understand the farm in depth, it is useful to review their web page – Waltham Fields Community Farm.  However to get a quick understanding of what the farm is all about, nothing beats a mind map.

Mind maps are particularly useful for:

  • understanding complex problems
  • taking notes
  • initial stages of designing a project
  • team collaboration
  • creative expression
  • presenting complex material in a concise format
  • team building or synergy creating activity

We often ask students to make a mind map of farms they have visited in our Sustainable Food and Farming classes at UMass.  For some examples, look at the links for individual students who took PLSOILIN 265 Sustainable Agriculture online.  I teach a course on Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass as well.

There are lot of mind mapping software packages available, but I find the best way to learn to do this is drawing by hand.  Here is an example of a hand drawn mind map on a local project, Grow Food Northampton.

Mind maps are particularly useful for describing a farm because they are complex systems with multiple relationships managed by humans.  There is no “right or wrong” way to do this.  Whatever works is fine. 

Why not give it a try?

NOTE: click on the link for more systems thinking blog posts!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.