Number 556 July 6, 2014

This Week: Thinking Systems

"Quote" of the Week: "Too Inexpensive to Attract Attention"
Seeing Systems, Asking Questions


It's an unusual Nygaard Notes this week. There's only one essay, really, when there are usually three or more. And it's a longer-than-usual "Quote" of the Week. And I'm not sure if this issue is Part One in a series about Systems, or not. In the next Nygaard Notes I'll talk about how Individual Thinking can sometimes lead us to support the maintenance of a sick system, even as we think we are trying to change it. After that, we'll have to see.



"Quote" of the Week: "Too Inexpensive to Attract Attention"

The cancer consultant and author Ralph Moss, in the most recent edition of his newsletter Advances in Cancer Treatment, speaks of new research on the use of the herb fenugreek. Some of you may be familiar with the herb, as it is used commonly in foods from South Asia.

Moss cites a recent study which "exposed various cancer cell lines to an extract of seeds of this common Indian herb. They then observed selective cell-killing (cytotoxic) effects on cancerous, but not normal, cells in a variety of tissue types. The study conclude that "The in vitro [test tube] effect of fenugreek as a substance with significant cytotoxicity to cancer cells points to [its] potential the prevention and treatment of cancer."

The study was stimulated by the case of an 10-year-old girl with lymphoma who went into remission—for 11 years—following treatment that consisted solely of a daily dose of one tablespoon of fenugreek.

The reason I chose the following words as my "Quote" of the Week is that they so neatly underline the point I made in the last Nygaard Notes about how profit-seeking warps our medical research.
The case of the 10-year-old, Moss noted, "certainly should stimulate greater interest than it so far has." Then he said this:

"Fenugreek may be too inexpensive to attract the attention of Big Pharma. Eight grams of fenugreek seeds costs between 5 and 10 cents per day! A six-month course of treatment would work out to a whopping $15 or so worth of seeds. On Amazon I also found 610 mg capsules of fenugreek seed selling for 4 cents apiece. But it's easy to buy the seeds yourself, grind them, soak them in hot water for three hours, and then take it as a hot or cold tea. You can sprout the seeds and add it to salads and other foods or grow the plant yourself in the summertime and harvest an abundance of seeds for next to nothing.

"But in our perverse world, fenugreek's low price may actually be a disadvantage, since pharmaceutical companies need to have rare and patentable items in order to charge top dollar and potentially reap rewards of a billion dollars or more per drug (blockbuster status), as with all the latest 'targeted' agents."

And that's what I was saying in the last Nygaard Notes, y'see.


Seeing Systems, Asking Questions

On page 1 of the New Year's Eve edition of the New York Times appeared an article that illustrates how a certain way of thinking can serve as an obstacle to understanding rather than a help. The headline in the paper edition read, "Accountability is Elusive in Garment Supply Chain," and the online headline was even more revealing: "Clothing Brands Sidestep Blame for Safety Lapses."

The article focuses on a Spanish clothing company called Mango (the Times calls it a "global fashion brand"), which "ships 60 million garments in a year." Some of those garments were being made by a factory called Phantom Tac, which operated out of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh until that complex collapsed last year "in the deadliest disaster in garment industry history."

"Now, eight months later," says the Times, "the question is what responsibility Mango and other brands should bear toward the victims of Rana Plaza, a disaster that exposed the murkiness and lack of accountability in the global supply chain for clothes. Under intense international pressure, four brands agreed last week to help finance a landmark $40 million compensation fund for the victims."

And that paragraph, along with the headline, points toward a way of thinking that, predictably and inevitably, leads us away from a good understanding of the problem with the "garment supply chain."

It's more than a way of thinking, actually. It's really what might be called an orientation in the way we see and understand the world. The intellectual tradition in the United States is based on what might be called an "analytic," or "scientific" way of seeing and understanding. And this orientation is, in turn, heavily influenced by an extreme attachment to Individualism, so much so that I sometimes refer to it as Individual Thinking. Evidence of this orientation, and the philosophy upon which it depends, can be found everywhere, although it is so rarely challenged that few recognize it. It's just "the way it is."

Contrasting Orientations

At the risk of implying that there are only two ways of thinking, it's useful to contrast Individual Thinking with what I will call a Systems Orientation. To save space I'll refer to them here as IT and SO. It's very, very difficult to capture the distinction without writing a lengthy book about it, but two of the main differences can be seen in difference in how the two systems understand 1) Causation, and 2) Responsibility.

In the IT world we are always looking for the "cause" of the things we see. In the SO world, there is no "cause." Instead, there are dynamic systems that produce outcomes. In the IT world we focus on "accountability" and look for someone to blame (as the two headlines discussed here indicate). In an SO process the issue of "blame" doesn't really come up, as we understand that a system will produce certain outcomes regardless of the intentions of the individuals in the system. (For more on that weird thought, see Nygaard Notes #548, "Steinbeck Helps Us Go from Villains to Systems")

An IT analysis concerns itself with the intention of the actors involved: Why did he or she do that? What kind of person would want to hurt people that way? Etc. Analyzing things from an SO perspective, the primary concern is not intention, but the outcomes and consequences of actions and patterns of actions.

Let's go back to the New York Times article to see how this plays out.

The Times says that "the question is what responsibility Mango and other brands should bear" for the suffering at Rana Plaza. And surely the entire article is constructed as an attempt to answer this question. For an SO thinker, that's not "the question" at all. The question is: What is the nature of the system that leads to the dangerous exploitation of workers in Bangladesh? And that's the question because that's what we have to know in order to make such tragedies less likely. Blaming and punishing, on the other hand, don't generally result in much change. (Other than corroding the spirit of the people doing the blaming and punishing.)

Spotting the Systems

One principle of a Systems Orientation is the idea of the "interaction of systems," or the "interpenetration of systems." This dynamic is clearly seen in the eighth paragraph of the Times article. Here is that eighth paragraph:

"For global brands and retailers, Rana Plaza has forced a reckoning over how to reconcile the mismatched pieces in their supply chains. Technology and investment are transforming the upper end of the industry, enabling Mango and other brands to increase sales, manage global inventories with pinpoint precision and introduce new clothes faster than ever — all as consumers now expect to see new things every time they visit a store."

How many interrelated systems can we spot here?

One system is the global clothing system, where consumers and producers all over the world are brought together in a close embrace. Another system is the "supply chain," which connects raw material production, investment, manufacturing infrastructure, labor, accounting and transportation into something "global."

Another system—here only implied—is the global marketing system. That marketing system shapes what consumers demand (or, as this article puts it: "expect"). But that's not all it does. It also goes beyond "marketing" to public relations, working at the ideological, definitional level, where it serves to narrow the definition of "brand identity" to style and retail price while removing from the "identity" of a brand the costs of production, including working conditions, environmental degradation, power relations between workers, consumers, and owners. Thanks to marketing, we think of the famous "swoosh" when we think of Nike, for example, and we don't think of "the tears of tortured workers and child labor" that go into the making of Nike products. (The quote is from the human rights group China Labor Watch. Check 'em out.)

The Times article does acknowledge such problems, saying that "these brands [that is, these corporations] depend on factories in developing countries like Bangladesh, where wages are very low and the pressure to work faster and cheaper has spawned familiar problems: unsafe buildings, substandard work conditions and repeated wage and labor violations. Consumers know little about these factories, even as global brands promise that their clothes are made in safe environments."

But rather than use that as a jumping-off point to talk about the global textile system and how we all contribute to it, and in fact "demand" it, the Times chooses to talk about a Spaniard, David Mayor, and his attempts to inject ethics into the system

"Placing a Premium on Efficiency, Cost and Speed."

David Mayor was a part owner of the production facility, who "had a social agenda" in which he was attempting "to prove that a Bangladeshi factory could be socially responsible and make a profit."

"But," the Times acknowledges, "the pressures on Phantom Tac to meet deadlines and make money made those social goals difficult to achieve." The clothing company being discussed, Mango, hopes to produce 300 million garments and roughly quintuple annual sales to 10 billion euros, or about $14 billion"

"This growth strategy comes after Mango responded to the global recession by slashing prices, expanding offerings and opening stores in countries like China and Russia. This increased sales but has placed a premium on efficiency, cost and speed."

Meanwhile, Mr. Mayor was teaming up with a Roman Catholic missionary to train young girls from the countryside to work in his factory, and he hired a woman to "develop a website where consumers could type in a code taken from the sales tag of an item and then learn about the Bangladeshi women who made the garment they had bought." And that woman, Ashley Wheaton, summed up the dilemma neatly by saying of Mr. Mayor that "He had this idea about what he wanted to accomplish. He really did want to change the way things are done. But he was pragmatic. He knew it had to make money and be sustainable."

What she should have said was that it has to make money in order to be sustainable, as the market will tolerate nothing less. Accepting that ground rule is the definition, in this context, of "pragmatic."

The article details the labor violations and other unsavory practices that ensued as the tension between the "social agenda," on the one hand, and the pragmatic need to make a profit, on the other, inevitably resolved in favor of profit.

The article names the owner of the building that collapsed, and cites various accusations and excuses. By focusing on "accountability" in the supply chain and by speculating on who is to "blame" for the accident that has taken so many lives and caused so much suffering, the article fails to draw the conclusion that seems obvious to someone operating with a Systems Orientation. And that conclusion is that it is the system itself that is responsible for the problems spelled out here and elsewhere.

That's why Mr. Mayor's "social agenda" was doomed from the beginning. Not because he was lazy, or had a bad strategy, or was a bad person. If the owner of the building had seen the error of his ways and maintained the building properly, it's unlikely that workers would be safer. It's much more likely that another facility would have appeared to which the global "clothing brands" would have migrated, and the "pressure to work faster and cheaper" would have built a new road leading to the same tragic destinations for these workers. That's the nature of systems: they produce the outcomes for which they were designed, or the outcomes which their structures demand, or the outcomes which are demanded by the larger systems of which they are a part.

Maybe Mr. Mayor is weak, or ill-intentioned, or heartless. (We'll probably never know, as the Times informs us that "Mr. Mayor has disappeared.") And maybe the same is true of all of the other people in Bangladesh, Spain, and elsewhere who could have done something to prevent the collapse of the Rana Plaza building but did not. But if all of those people were purged from the supply chain, or put in jail, or simply disappeared from the picture like Mr. Mayor, and no other changes were made in the systems that brought us to this point, is there any doubt that other "pragmatic" people would be found to keep the system operating as it has evolved to do thus far?

The desires of the individuals are not unimportant in this picture. The point is that there are a variety of factors in any system—or system of systems—that produce the outcomes that the system demands, regardless of the intentions of anybody in those systems. And if the people currently in position to produce these outcomes fail to do what they are supposed to do, then other people will be found to replace them, since systems work very hard to perpetuate themselves.

Consider again the two versions of the New York Times headline we're talking about here: "Accountability is Elusive in Garment Supply Chain," and the online version, "Clothing Brands Sidestep Blame for Safety Lapses." Focusing on "blame" really gets us nowhere, and neither does the implied question, "Who is accountable for this?" The question needs to change from "who" to "what." That is, rather than asking "who is accountable," or "Who is to blame," we need to start asking "What are the factors that are producing these outcomes?" The change from "who" to "what" looks like a simple one, but it reflects a turning away from the standard way of individualistic thinking toward a Systems Orientation.

So, what's the lesson here? The lesson is that change comes not from changing the individuals who are, in most cases, simply doing a job. Change comes when the incentives and objectives of the system are changed, or when one system is replaced by another. And that requires a whole range of changes, including the gathering of popular support, a change in the consciousness of a large number of people, and hard work by those who desire the change. In other words, a movement. And it's important to remember that much of the necessary change—for example, changes in consciousness—will remain invisible until the changes are sufficient to force a transformation of the system of which they are a part into something else.