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Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail

John Gall (1975; rpt. 1978)


When a system is set up to accomplish some goal, a new entity has come into being—the system itself. No matter what the "goal" of the system, it immediately begins to exhibit system behavior; that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems. Now the system itself has to be dealt with. Whereas before, there was only the problem—such as warfare between nations, or garbage collection—there is now an additional universe of problems associated with the functioning or merely the presence of the new system. (29)



Systems are like babies: once you get one, you have it. They don't go away. On the contrary, they display the most remarkable persistence. They not only persist; they grow. And as they grow, they encroach. (33)

The system of government, at its basis a system for protecting the people, encroached upon them until it became their worst oppressor. In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service not only collect our taxes, they also make us compute the tax for them, an activity that exacts an incalculable cost in sweat, tears, and agony and takes years off our lives as we groan over their complicated forms. (35)

Just what is the characteristic feature of things not working out? To ask the question is to see the answer, almost immediately. It is the element of paradox to which we have already alluded. Things not only don't work out well, they work out in strange, even paradoxical, ways. Our plans not only go awry, they produce results we never expected. Indeed they often produce the opposite result from the one intended. (37-8)

Item: The Aswan Dam, built at enormous expense to improve the lot of the Egyptian peasant, has caused the Nile to deposit its fertilizing sediment in Lake Nasser, where it is unavailable. Egyptian fields must now be artificially fertilized. Gigantic fertilizer plants have been built to meet the new need. The plants require enormous amounts of electricity. The dam must operate at capacity merely to supply the increased need for electricity which was created by the building of the dam. (38)

Item: The largest building in the world, the space vehicle preparation shed at Cape Kennedy, generates its own weather, including clouds and rain. Designed to protect space rockets from the elements, it pelts them with storms of its own. (42)

We formalize these observations in the Non-Additivity Theorem of Systems-behavior, alternatively known as the Climax Design Theorem:
A Large System, Produced By Expanding The Dimensions Of A Smaller System, Does Not Behave Like The Smaller System. (45)

But first, following our rule of placing the most fundamental Axioms at the beginning, we present the Fundamental Law of Administrative Workings (F.L.A.W.):
Things Are What They Are Reported To Be.
This Axiom has been stated in various ways, all to the same effect. Standard formulations include the following:
The Real World Is What Is Reported To The System (65)

The net effect of this Law is to ensure that people in systems are never dealing with the real world that the rest of us have to live in but with a filtered, distorted, and censored version which is all that can get past the sensory organs of the system itself. (66)

As we all know, sensory deprivation tends to produce hallucinations. Similarly, immersion in a system tends to produce an altered mental state that results in various bizarre malfunctions, recognizable to us but not to the people in the system. (70)

1. Functionary's Pride.
This disorder was already ancient when it was definitively characterized by W. Shakespeare as "the insolence of office." A kind of mania of self-esteem induced by titles and the illusion of power, it is so well known as to need no further description. (71)

2. Hireling's Hypnosis.
A trance-like state, a suspension of normal mental activity; induced by membership within a system.
Example. A large private medical clinic and hospital installed a computerized billing system. One day the system printed out a bill for exactly $111.11 for every one of the more than 50,000 persons who had attended the clinic during the preceding year. For the next several days the switchboard was jammed with calls from irate recipients of the erroneous bills. Emergency calls could not get through. Nearly ten thousand former patients took their business elsewhere, for a total loss to the clinic of almost a million dollars.
The person operating the computer system that day, as well as the office clerks, the programmer, and twelve employees hired to stuff, seal, and stamp envelopes—all had observed the striking identity of numbers on the bills but had done nothing to stop the error. The system had hypnotized them. (71-2)

Manager's Mirage.
The belief that some event (usually called an "outcome") was actually caused by the operation of the System. For example: The Public School System is believed by some to be responsible for the literary works of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Arthur Miller, since it taught them to write. (73-4)

Systems attract not only Systems-people who have attributes for success within the system. They also attract individuals who possess specialized attributes adapted to allow them to thrive at the expense of the system, i.e., persons who parasitize them. As the barnacle attaches to the whale, these persons attach themselves to systems, getting a free ride and a free lunch as long as the system survives. (75)

But, however difficult it may be to know what a system is doing, or even whether it is doing anything, we can still be sure of the validity of the Newtonian Law of Inertia as applied to systems:
A System That Performs A Certain Function Or Operates In A Certain Way Will Continue To Operate In That Way Regardless Of The Need Or Of Changed Conditions.
In accordance with this principle, the Selective Service System continued to register young men for the draft, long after the draft had ended.
When a System continues to do its own thing, regardless of circumstances, we may be sure that it is acting in pursuit of inner goals. This observation leads us, by a natural extension, to the insight that:
Systems Develop Goals of Their Own The Instant They Come Into Being.
Furthermore, it seems axiomatically clear that:
Intrasystem Goals Come First. (86-8)

Once a problem is recognized as a Problem, it undergoes a subtle metamorphosis. Experts in the "Problem" area proceed to elaborate its complexity. They design systems to attack it. This approach guarantees failure, at least for all but the most pedestrian tasks. A system that is sufficiently large, complex, and ambitious can reduce output far below "random" levels. Thus, a federal Program to conquer cancer may tie up all the competent researchers in the field, leaving the problem to be solved by someone else, typically a graduate student from the University of Tasmania doing a little recreational entomology on his vacation. Solutions usually come from people who see in the problem only an interesting puzzle, and whose qualifications would never satisfy a select committee. (107-8)

Government Systems, acting in accordance with the Laws of Growth, tend to Expand and Encroach. In encroaching upon their own citizens, they produce Tyranny, and in encroaching on other Government systems, they engage in Warfare. If one could correctly identify the Intrinsic Difficulty with the Government System, one might be able to curb or neutralize those two tendencies, to the benefit of the Mankind System.
What is the Intrinsic Difficulty with the Government System? Previous reformers, identifying the core problem as the concentration of power in a few hands, have attempted to improve things by diffusing that power. This works temporarily, but gradually (Systems Law of Gravity) the power becomes concentrated again.
A breakaway group of General Systemanticists, starting from the principle that it is very difficult to unscramble eggs, have proposed that the core problem is not the concentration of power but the concentration of the governed in one place, where the government can get at them. They have proposed, not the diffusion of power, but the diffusion of the targets of power—the citizens themselves.
They would achieve this by providing citizens with two new freedoms, in addition to the traditional Four Freedoms. These two new freedoms, appropriately designated as the Fifth and Sixth Freedoms, are:
(5) Free Choice of Territory (Distributional Freedom).
(6) Free Choice of Government (Principle of Hegemonic Indeterminacy)
Under Free Choice of Territory, a citizen of any country is free to live in any part of the world he chooses. He remains a citizen of the government he prefers, to which he pays taxes and for whose officers he votes. However, as the term Free Choice of Government implies, he may at any time change his citizenship and his allegiance from his present government to another government that offers more attractive tax rates, more interesting public officials, or simply an invigorating change of pace.
With these two new Freedoms in effect, one would expect that after a short period of equilibration, citizens of any nation would be distributed amongst the citizens of all other nations—not necessarily at random, but sufficiently so for our purpose, which is to remove them effectively from the grip of their own government. A government can hardly put any large number of its own citizens in jail if it has to send halfway around the world for them, one by one, and persuade other governments of the justice of the proceedings. Raising armies would become administratively impossible. Furthermore, wars of one government against another would become impractical, since large numbers of the enemy would be distributed all over the world, including the territory of the home government.
The net result of the two new Freedoms would be to break up the Concentration of the Governed, to divide and distribute them throughout other governments, a principle which we shall call the Comminution of Hegemony. If practiced on a world-wide scale it could lead to revolutionary changes in the relationship of citizens to their governments, reversing the traditional polarity and making governments fearfully dependent upon the favor or even the whims of their citizenry rather than vice versa. In keeping with the revolutionary aspects of this proposal, we hereby broach the solemn question:
World Comminution: Threat Or Promise? (117-19)

4. Explain:
(a) why no major organization ever voluntarily disbanded itself;
(b) why major doctrinal advances are rarely made by the chief officer of a religion, philosophy, or political party;
(c) why company presidents rarely if ever introduce a major change in the function or product of the company. (138)

First Honorable Mention
The judges were unanimous in awarding First Honorable Mention jointly to the United States Coast Guard and the Canadian Environmental Protection Service for their Operation Preparedness, a proposal to study the effects of an oil spill upon the ecology of Lake Saint Clair (above Lake Erie) by actually dumping five hundred gallons of jet fuel into the lake. (Advanced students should find at least three applicable Axioms.) (142)

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