Consider Systematic Problems

Consider Systematic Problems May 28, 2020

Yesterday, a person started ranting about a particular failure and how people needed to “get better.” He did not propose any big changes, just that we (as individuals) do better. That could be true, but it might be stupid. Why?

Some problems are systematic. 

Imagine an organization that kept failing in exactly the same way. The organization forms a committee, as organizations often do, and identify particular employees as the cause of the problem. These employees get help, but as the organization keeps failing just as before the study, the employees are fired.

Next year, the problem happens again. “Give it time,” the managers suggest. Time is given. The following year the problem is, if anything, worse.

Another committee gathers, but this time the discussion is more contentious. The entire organization threatens to fall apart as some question whether the organization can continue. Finally, the committee comes to the conclusion that each individual, including the managers, has a personal part in failure. Everyone, or at least a majority, vow to stop messing up and fix the problem once and  for all. All the employees feel better.

The next year the failure continues, though less markedly. “Progress!” the managers cry. After five years, progress stagnates. The failure continues.

Some managers urge the business to accept that this sort of failure is part of life. “Nothing is perfect.” they mutter in meetings. In frustration, some stakeholders suggest closing the business altogether and getting into a new line of work, but the good, the relative success of the company, makes this a minority opinion. Finally, at long last, someone suggests that the systems themselves are causing failure.

Regardless of individual effort, the process, the way things were done, power that was allocated in the organization, meant that unacceptable failure was inevitable. The problem was systematic. 

Surely nobody would deny that systematic failures exist and that good, brilliant, well meaning people put into such systems can make them better, but cannot solve all the problems. Even if some genius does, for a time, conquer the system and get good results, the system is the problem. I have worked in such systems, worked to fix such systems, and know they exist. Don’t you?

An Example of Systematic Failure 

Race should not be a predictive factor in a society with America’s stated values. Too often, race does predict outcomes. This suggests a system that favors racist outcomes. We have tried many solutions. There is no doubt that overt racism on the part of individuals is much less than when I was a child. There is no doubt that there is an increase in civil liberties. Many outcomes have improved.

It is not enough. We still fail badly.

If so, then we might have a start at understanding systematic racism. While the founding of America in 1789 was an increase in liberty, relative to history and the rest of the world, the Founders and many of majority America had bad views on race. Whether local organizations, government, or unwritten societal rules, the unthinking assumption of many was white supremacy. In many cases, the assumption was ethnic (say Anglo-Saxon) supremacy, but in America everyone eventually becomes “White” except for African-Americans.* 

If this seems implausible, then ask: “Why do we keep failing on race?” Isn’t one probable answer that we have many (far too many) institutions that have not changed rules, assumptions, ways of being so they keep producing racist outcomes? Individuals are never perfect, so we need systems that do not depend on perfection, but guard the liberties of all Americans. African-Americans have not had access to the success that all other Americans have had, not yesterday and not today.

Something is wrong. Those not experiencing this wrong must listen before proposing solutions since there is so much progress needed.

This does not mean some problems have not been fixed. They obviously have. We can and must do better as a community so that we can reach the goal of any Christian: a beloved community where all God’s children are treated with dignity.

If we resist, as many organizations do, looking at the system, then we will continue to fail. While failure might be “acceptable” in an organization, failure is not acceptable when denying the very humanity of other humans created in God’s image. This is a damnable sin.

We must be willing to consider systematic change to spread liberty and justice for all.


*American treatment of First Nations (as sovereign tribes with whom we have treaties) is a separate and different evil.

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