The system optimum is not the sum of the local optima

August 2, 2010

There are all sorts of situations where a single localized optimum equals overall badness:
  • A top-of-the-line video card that is the best in the world but hogs so much computer resources that the other components are starved.
  • A project manager that is the best at getting the best employees to work on his jobs, so the company’s other jobs suffer.
  • A factory that cheaply produces 10,000 gadgets when the market only wants 5,000.
  • 10 salesmen hoarding information to ensure their coworkers don’t get the commission.
  • A customer service representative that is so highly trained in answering phones that she isn’t capable of pinch hitting for a sick coworker in shipping.
  • An electrical grid that optimized to the T for the current system load, but doesn’t allow for growth.

We cannot confuse individual components’ good work with a system working well. We have to realize that in a complex system, parts must have their individual ups and downs in order for the whole to benefit. Consider:

  • A lawyer who spends 50% of his billing hours in a month on pro-bono work.
  • A pharmacist who spends 25% more time checking prescriptions for errors when a new drug is introduced.
  • A rolling operation in a steel mill that produces only just enough 3/4″ plate, resulting in more set-up time for the week per ton

We must as good system managers reward and encourage a tribal mindset. We have to help the people-ness of our people get out–because people, when allowed to, will sacrifice for something bigger then themselves if they feel they are a part of it.

This idea is almost unheard of in our capitalistic mindset–in the 5o’s, it may well have labeled me a communist. But why should we reward workers or managers for local results when those very results might be restricting the performance of the whole? Why would we reward project managers based on an individual projects profit if that profit was achieved at the expense of other projects? Why would we commend a factory boss that has produced it’s portion of the widget very efficiently, but in so doing has neglected to consider the cost of storing 100,000 efficiently-produced items? Why would we pat a software engineer on the back for elegantly-written code that does not talk well to the good-enough code of the rest of the department?

Rewards and commendations and pats-on-the-back should be used when the system as a whole advances, not when one part advances independently. The dog sled is not much better off with a single dog that is twice as fast as the rest.

But wait! Am I telling you to reward conformity to a system??? No, no, a thousand times no! I have stated before and will state again that the system that will prevail is the system that can and will change. But it is extremely important to communicate the system values, the system goals, the system objectives, to all the players in the system, and then back that communication up with matching actions.


2 Responses to “The system optimum is not the sum of the local optima”

  1. Matt Wantaja Says:

    I as well think that we all shall prevail! It is only so hard as to be incessant with our approach to the schematics in the system that we must all focus on to become strong communists! Only then will a true system have prevailed.

  2. Jory Roberts Says:

    I agree 100%. This puts an image in my mind of a pastry factory where the oven conveyor unit is much better and efficient than the packaging unit behind it. In this case, there is too much product coming out of the oven unit for the packager to package. Thus makes the oven only as quick as the units working with it.

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