Systems Thinking

In the last post I raised the issue of unintended consequences.  Some may have thought I was arguing against automatic control when I postulated that before computerized control took over that catastrophic systems failures were less likely since humans struggled to maintain control with even minor equipment degradation. In reality all that I am saying is that whenever we automate something we need to consider those unintended consequences and make allowances for them.  In the control loop example I gave in the previous post I stated that computerized control enabled systems to operate within production and quality limits even as the equipment deteriorated to the point that failures frequently were catastrophic as opposed to just requiring minor adjustment.  

When we take the systems view we recognize that such a situation exists and take steps to compensate for it, particularly if the system under control is costly or if failure could result in significant loss or danger.  So if we fully automate a process we need to understand how the equipment associated with process wears, what signs and indications of wear might exist, and when such wear needs to be attended to to avoid damage to plant or persons.  This implies that we understand the end-to-end relationship of the process and the interaction of all the components in the process.  If this sounds a little bit like lean thinking I'd argue that it is.  When we stop throwing band aids at manufacturing process problems, using automation to address a throughput or quality issue, without considering the process in its entirety, we have the opportunity to apply systems thinking and not overlook those unintended consequences.

So if you plan on automating your processes and take people out of the loop, my best advice is recognize that you also need to consider investing in a predictive maintenance program that will give you ample warning of impending failures.  That way you won't automate yourself into a potential disaster.

Dan Miklovic is blogger contributor for Control's blog Manufacturing 2010. You can email him at or check out his Google+ profile.