Systems Matter

Several years ago, I wrote an essay for the UTSA Student Affairs Staff Newsletter. I told two stories of amazing customer service. There was a small independent pharmacy near our home. At the time I was taking a medicine I had to refill regularly and I went in on a Friday to find that the pharmacist was gone for several days (yes, the pharmacist). So I turned to leave and was stopped by the clerk at the front who asked if I was there for a refill. I said yes, but I hadn’t called it in. He asked my name and pulled out a bag with my prescription. It turns out the pharmacist had filled the prescriptions of all his customers who would need refills while he was gone. I was blown away by that impressive level of service (and really depressed when he retired and closed up).

It seems to me the essential element here is that he thought about what his absence would mean, identified a problem, and took steps to minimize the impact. Easy to do, you might say, in a small organization, and you might be right.

However, a few days later, I had an interaction with a mega-organization whose service area is world-wide. The service I experienced was just as impressive as in the little pharmacy.

One day early one morning, while driving down a country road to work, I hit a deer. I’m convinced it fell from the sky, but no matter how we both got there, by the end of the interaction my car wasn’t really drivable. I called my insurance company and by the time I got off the phone a little more than 20 minutes later, the tow truck was on the way, the rental car was reserved, and I had the phone number of the body shop. The tow truck showed up in 20 minutes as promised – another example of good service. At the rental car place I signed for the car and drove in to work. As my husband Peter said, it was like calling a concierge—impressive, and wonderful not to have any additional stress added to the day.

In this case, it was not about one person identifying a problem and creating a unique solution, it was an example of an entire system set up to work truly seamlessly.

Today, I spent time with about fifty people from across the OU Health Sciences Center in FEMA, emergency management training. We went through the Incident Command Center process, learned about the FEMA design, and generally learned about the complex, intertwined system necessary to support the people and processes of a complex organization when an emergency hits. In February, we’ll come together again to do a table-top exercise to continue our training.

I was struck by one of the ideas the trainer stressed. He was clear that in these situations a group of well meaning people is not enough. To respond effectively in emergencies, we need to be both well-meaning and well-coordinated. And that combination seems to me to apply in bot the situations I described above even if the scale was widely different.

The pharmacist was both well-meaning and he thought ahead about what was needed – well-coordinated. The big insurance company was certainly well-coordinated and it seems to me that someone had to have been well-meaning to have designed such an effective system.

And so I think there’s an interesting question for us as we work and engage with complex systems. What would our systems look like and how would people experience them if we thought about being both well-meaning and well-coordinated? We are enmeshed in complex systems. We depend on complex, large scale systems. If we didn’t know that before, the disruptions of our supply chains over the past few years has taught us this. If we all started thinking about these questions, what might we be able to create?

Take care,



Adapted from the UTSA Student Affairs Newsletter, November 2008

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