Embrace your Systems Thinker

I do too. Really!

Had a terrific conversation with a manager working his way through Managing with Aloha for the first time, using my new ebook, Become an Alaka‘i Manager in 5 Weeks. At one point he asked me,

Can we talk story more about processes? I’ve always thought of myself as a big systems and processes guy up to now, and honestly Rosa? I’ve invested so much into them that I want to keep feeling good about that.”

He helped me understand how I might be giving you the wrong impression of my feelings with systems and processes, or a mixed message, for on the one hand I’ll promote them, like this: Hō‘imi your Trusted System, and this: Learn a 5-Step Weekly Review, and Make it your Habit.

On the other, I’ll write a message like this one within the Role of the Manager Reconstructed:

  • People can fix broken processes.
  • Processes cannot fix broken-in-spirit people.
  • Break the spirit of your managers, and you fall even farther behind.

First of all, yes, DO feel good about being a systems thinker, and someone who understands that processes are important, for they make business move. There is no such thing as a good business without great processes!

This is the way my friend Timothy Johnson, certified PMP (project management professional) and author of SWAT, Seize the Accomplishment, describes your passion (SWAT stands for “systems working all together”) in his Ho‘ohana:

“At heart, I am, have always been, and shall always be, a “process guy.” I like to dissect EVERYTHING in terms of a process. What comes before what? What actions create what consequences? When can certain inputs be introduced into the system? How many inputs can be transformed into outputs? What are the hand-offs? Are they happening effectively and efficiently? These are the questions that haunt and taunt me. They are the lens through which I see my world. And they are the reason for my success” as a consultant, as a professor, as a parent” you name it. But the question that permeates everything, the one that really triggers every fiber in my mind and soul: “What accomplishments need to be created and how do we get there?”

Those are great questions to be invested in, for they drive so much, exploring how work actually will happen (or not happen.)

Timothy had helped us understand this better here on Talking Story a while back in the context of decision-making:

Like with most things in life, I view decision-making like another system (there is no wing at the Betty Ford clinic for systems thinking addicts, by the way).
The inputs are the decision variables, including the need for making a decision in the first place and the data available.
The throughput (or transformation process) is our decision-making process, or how we convert those variables into”
The output (the decision itself), the outcome of our thought process.
The feedback loop of our decision-management (follow-through on this decision as well as other related decisions) helps lead to other decisions’ inputs.
~ Timothy Johnson
Read more at his blog: Decision Incision

Great stuff. I truly value and appreciate systems thinking; it’s the drool-over-it detail stuff of the stellar projects that dynamic workplace teams prosper within. And as you can probably tell, Timothy has a knack for making this fun; if you’re a self-proclaimed systems thinker or process person in the way you describe your Ho‘ohana Timothy will be your hero: Subscribe to his blog.

My Ho‘ohana as a workplace culture coach with Managing with Aloha on the brain simply zeroes in on a specific, connected question: How do these systems and processes affect the people involved with them?

People are the ‘input’ and the ‘transformed output’ I get most interested in, and I believe that has to be a heightened interest of all who wish to be Alaka‘i Managers. Especially today, as struggling businesses seek to move the “people cost” out of the equation as we spoke of last week: An Erosion of Trust.

My challenge to you who are “systems thinkers and process people” is this: Embrace our grey in your black and white. Admittedly it can seem stormy, however it’s quite beautiful too. We can be helping each other.

Keawe Storm

Here is the bit which appears in the ebook, with a bounty of added links to related writings I have done. Hover your mouse or curser over the links to see their titles.

Lessen your work with systems and processes

You’ll be amazed at just how much you can accomplish when you have more workplace conversations (not meetings, conversations). One of the things Aloha does is help make talking to each other more enjoyable so we don’t avoid things and sweep them under the rug. We appreciate learning from each other.

Generally speaking, we managers work with three things: Systems, processes, and people. The goal of MWA is shifting your work away from task-related systems and processes in favor of your more rewarding work with people as much as possible. The finishing well conversation for mutual agreements which we just covered is but one example.

Your best work is to be done in cultivating the relationships in which you’ll teach or train, and then coach others toward their stress-free high performance: This is the way that Alaka‘i Managers serve others, by helping them grow into their greater potential. Great managers create more leaders, not work drones, and not more followers. They facilitate partnerships, treating employees as business partners. You can’t do those things when swallowed up in task work.


  1. says

    I’m feeling embraced, Rosa… completely and totally. First and foremost, Mahalo for the great shout-out on my book.

    More importantly, thank you for keeping the importance of systems thinking at the forefront of everyone’s attention.

    • Rosa Say says

      Mahalo for coming by Timothy, and it’s my pleasure to share your book with our Ho‘ohana Community. I loved it, and I’m sure they will too.

      Can I ask a favor of you? I find that “system” and “process” are words which often get used interchangeably. The language of intention with each gets very muddied and unclear — can you give us a simple, workable definition for each one that will help us keep their difference easier to remember?

  2. Roselia Conrad says

    I loved hearing from both worlds, the black & white (systems) and the grey (people).
    Having been consciously aware of walking in both worlds, without the words to communicate my experience, it is a blessing to have you, Rosa, the mind and voice to express the thoughts needed to make this a better world for me and subsequently for others, with better understanding and more compassion. In the end, for me, it is always about our greatest resource…people…and how we manage that precious resource…starting, first, with myself. Loved this conversation. Mahalo.

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you so much Roselia, for giving me the affirmation of your comment, you’re so very welcome! People certainly make life joyful and colorful, don’t they!

  3. says

    Sure thing, Rosa. Simply put, the process is the “roadmap” of the system. It is the HOW of converting inputs to outputs. Some people refer to process as throughput or transformation. The term used is not as important as understanding the role it plays within its broader system.

    Example: Think of the system of decision-making (which you mentioned in your post). The “output” is the decision. Our “inputs” would include the facts we have available, our experiences, our perceptual filters, inputs from others, etc. The process is how we derive the decision based on the inputs available to us. The feedback loop is the assessment of how “good” the decision was.

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you Timothy! Happened to see this on Frank Chimero’s ethos scroll earlier this morning too:

      “Process is all of the rungs of the ladder between the bottom rung and the top rung. You can’t really get anywhere meaningful without process.”

      He also says, “The Process is the reward.”

  4. says

    Another way to think of the difference between a system and a process is to think of a process as having steps (actions, tasks, activities, etc.). The process of making a sandwich will involve steps such as cutting and spreading. The system of sandwich making will encompass those steps as well as the inputs (bread, cold cuts, cheese, produce, personal desires), output (the sandwich itself), feedback loop (hunger satisfaction), and environment (kitchen).