The System Is the Customer

Every time you choose a model like e.g. a business model canvas or a customer journey you are choosing which information is important to you and which information is not.

e.g. if you map a customer journey for a trip from home to work using public transport you are saying that how many buss drivers there are is not a part of your problem to solve, or that you don’t need to calculate in the scarcity of busses, cost of fuel or the city’s traffic or noise pollution regulations.

Adding the customer’s needs, motivations, imagining their situation and understanding how they make decisions is imperative to any business partnering with their customers for the equal production of valuable outcomes. But the customer is only one piece of the opportunity that needs to be understood, considered and solved for.

If we only include the customer as with a simple model like a common customer journey, we are taking a one-dimensional and linear approach to problem solving and we are running the risk of creating more problems. To quote Kevin Slavin:

“Every time you solve a problem you create one” – Kevin Slavin

Mapping the whole system the city council or buss company might see that the solution is not linear, it’s not straight forward (no problems are). They can’t just change the time schedules to improve their customers’ satisfaction. Because the knock-on effects of training, pollution and scarcity of busses will deteriorate the service everywhere else and impact the city as a whole more negatively. And maybe a root problem to better customer service is not time schedules – as they cannot magically be fixed – but shortage of drivers due to low pay (US), dismal public housing (Bristol) or road design(Brazil).

Knowing and focusing on the customer is vital to a healthy business, but so is understanding that the way to create better outcomes might as well be an indirect effect as a direct one, or a deep structural change (e.g. housing) as a time-schedule one. And being able to model how any good or bad decision will cascade through the company creating which alternative effects is of vital importance.

Sometimes by understanding the whole system with all its forces of influence you can see that even something small and inexpensive far away, like making people opt-out of organ donation instead of opting in on a check-box in your drivers license application, might have outsized effect on the ability to treat people with organ failures in every hospital in the country. .. And then what happens when the public transport gets so good nobody needs to get their drivers license anymore?

The promise of systems thinking is that it is a better approach to help the company understand the whole market and operate as a coordinated whole company. And in complex continuously moving environments we need better multi-dimensional models that allow us to understand as much as we can about the complex relationships and effects of our decisions, indecisions and actions.

In other words: the better way to serve the customer is to serve the whole system.

For your further pleasure: An excellent introduction to System Thinking by MIT’s John Sterman (starts at 2m43sec)

Introduction to System Dynamics: Overview

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