Leaders Know That You Cannot Optimize the Subsystems to Optimize the System

A member of a client team gave me a book as a gift. The book is The Meaning Revolution by Fred Kofman. It’s very good, and I’m likely to write more about its insights in the months to come, but for now, I want to share my new favorite saying:

To optimize the system, you cannot optimize the subsystems.

In my previous career, I directed high school bands, and that’s where I learned this lesson. Perhaps a piece of music has a few tough passages for the trumpet section. Therefore, I might devote a lot of energy from the podium to help them get their parts just right. But if I spend all the time needed to tweak the trumpet section to perfection, it’s likely that the clarinet section doesn’t everything just right, and the percussion section is missing a couple important nuances. In that case, the music as a whole suffers. 

To get the musical piece just right, it’s important to attend to all the sections, in balance, until the time of performance. True, no performance will be perfect, and each section will have their struggles. Still, the conductor’s job is to constantly perform an act of musical triage—to determine what bits of performance need to be helped first, which can wait, and which can be ignored for the time being. 

Now, let’s view this concept from the perspective of an organization.

Most leaders have a history in a part of the organization, and this can lead to bias if you’re not careful. I was a tuba major (how many tuba majors do YOU know?), so I was very attuned to what was happening in the low brass sections of the bands I directed. But that could lead me to miss nuances in the woodwind sections.

Likewise, if you come from a marketing background and you remember what it was like to be underutilized, you might push for marketing resources once you are the unit head. After all, if potential customers don’t know how awesome your stuff is, what’s the point? Let’s get that department what they need!

But if you come from an operations background, you know that the supply chain needs to be optimized to keep the warehouses at the right level of inventory to maximize cost control. And if we’re in business to make money, then isn’t that the most critical system to optimize?

And if you come from research and development, you know that the whole enterprise will die without innovation. Let’s be the place that’s always bringing the next big thing to the market!

Check yourself – do you have a bias?

Are you inadvertently optimizing a subsystem? If so, the whole system is not optimal.

If you have one department that is extremely happy and engaged, and no others are at that level, check it out; that could be a sign.

Leaders make sure people understand this balance.

“In order to optimize a nonlinear system, you must suboptimize its subsystems. If you optimize any subsystem, you will suboptimize the system.”

Kofman, F. (2018). The Meaning Revolution. Currency Publishing, New York.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *