System support

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Green, yellow and red are the colours of the flags of many African countries including Ethiopia. They are very symbolic colours indeed. They are also the common colours of traffic lights, throughout the world. Everybody knows what they represent. Some time ago, traffic lights were placed at a junction I cross daily. This is helpful as it supports the flow of traffic and prevents jams caused by drivers who don’t give way to other road users or simply don’t follow the most basic traffic rules. It also requires less presence of traffic police officers, who otherwise regulate the flow of traffic.
I was pleased with the traffic lights as I did not have to push my way across the junction anymore as was otherwise the case. It seemed to work very well. A few days later when I arrived at the junction, I noticed that the lights did not work. I assume there was a power failure and as a result all drivers returned to their old habits and pushed their way through while blocking other cars. The situation was back to what it was before and there were no traffic police officers to regulate traffic at that location, presumably because the traffic lights were taking care of just that. During the weeks that followed, the traffic lights, sometimes worked, at other times not. Since a week or so ago, they don’t work at all anymore.
So, while the system was installed and meant to regulate traffic, avoid jams and relief the traffic police force, it did so only sometimes, resulting in situations that are in fact worse than before. As the functioning of the lights became inconsistent, drivers lost confidence in the system and began to ignore it instead. In fact, many drivers choose to ignore traffic lights anyway as they jump the red to gain 120 seconds or so and endanger the lives of user road users and themselves, but that is material for another story. So now, the traffic police must be present again to step in when the lights don’t work, while they also overrule the lights sometimes depending on the traffic situation of a particular hour. Ineffectiveness, confusion and chaos are the results of an otherwise good idea, i.e. putting in place a system that supports and facilitates traffic flow.
Now, what has all this to do with “Doing Business”, the reader may ask. Well, systems are designed and put in place to support management, to facilitate process flows and production, to monitor progress and provide information. Some management systems in fact use the “Traffic Light” system to monitor progress of planned activities. Green will typically mean that the project and activities are on track, yellow will mean that there is a delay or is a warning for certain items to pay specific attention to and red is an alarm that things are not progressing well at all and action needs to be taken. Such system can be very helpful indeed and provide management with timely information to take measures. The system will only be effective though as long as it receives the right and timely inputs, as long as it produces reliable output information, as long as the information it provides is referred to consistently and finally as long as the information it provides is responded to adequately.
In other words, there are preconditions to be met for a system to be effective. Below follow some preconditions that need to be put in place, without pretending to be exhaustive:
The system must be designed to receive and provide the right and timely information. However, design follows purpose. In other words, management first needs to define the information required to be able to make informed decisions. Using predesigned systems is in order but only after confirming it will serve the purpose of what management requires.
Staff, responsible for providing input must have the knowledge and skills to do so effectively, timely and with only a slight margin of error.
In the same line, staff, responsible for accessing the information must also have the knowledge and skills to do so correctly. Output information is now translated into management information: green, yellow or red.
Management must now gain a comprehensive insight in all information provided by the system and be ready to make well informed management decisions.
Management must periodically review the system to see whether it is still adequate or requires a review or update.
The system must be maintained and kept free from hazards, as there are many in today’s ITC era.
Finally, any system is only going to be effective if it is used in the right way and more importantly if it is used consistently. Failing consistent and correct usage of any system will result in failing to make timely, informed decisions and running unnecessary risks. Your business will begin to look like the chaos of a busy junction where the traffic lights don’t work, and you don’t really want that, do you?
Ton Haverkort