Systems Talk With Robert: Understanding The Systems In Your Life

This is a guest post from Robert Wall of Untitled Minimalism.

I’ve been thinking lately about systems, particularly our irrational faith in them.

I’ve found that one of the keys to not tearing your hair out in frustration is to understand the systems you interact with, and (ultimately) what they want.

I’ll use McDonald’s as an example, since we’re all familiar with them.

McDonald’s Has A System

To sum it up quickly, they’ve developed a system that allows 16-year-old kids that don’t really care about their jobs to, with minimal supervision, churn out burgers and other food that tastes consistent and won’t kill anybody.

That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment when you think about it.

This system isn’t just a theoretical thing; it’s written down in a very large stack of binders that goes to all franchisees.

Want to know how to handle coupons? That’s in there. Procedure for calibrating the grill? That’s in there too.

You know the catchphrase, “would you like fries with that?” It’s part of the training system – it’s called “suggestive selling”.

In fact, if you were to walk into a McDonald’s with no prior knowledge whatsoever of how their operation works, you could be up and running in a day or two just by carefully studying the manuals.

What The System Wants

The twin goals of most any system are to minimize costs, and maximize profits. McDonald’s has elevated this to an art form.

Costs are minimized by tracking waste in all its forms. Decisions that typically require math and thought have been reduced to charts that can be used with no knowledge of the underlying concepts.

The number of employees on duty, for example, is compared to sales coming through the register, and then referenced against those charts. If the chart says somebody goes home, somebody goes home.

Most of this is done by rote, not by deep knowledge. My experience dictates that not one manager in ten could tell you how to calculate man-hours of labor if you asked them – even though they do it with their charts every day.

Why spend the time to deeply educate somebody when you can stamp out a human cog in a fraction of the time?

Products are procured as cheaply as possible, then assembled by employees that are (functionally) carbon copies of each other – human cogs in the machine.

This is all mind-blowingly consistent with the goals of the system.

What You Want

You want to walk into McDonald’s and plunk down a couple bucks for a cheeseburger. You generally want the food to be hot, you want it in a reasonable timeframe, and you want it to taste like it did last time.

You might even like being reminded that you didn’t order fries and a drink, who knows?

If these are your goals, you’ll be happy – because they’re exactly what the system wants.

When Worlds Collide

What’s that you say? You want the burger made with 95% lean ground beef? You’re about to be dissatisfied, and in a big way.

The system has considered using 95% lean ground beef, and calculated that it will inflate prices by fifty cents per burger. Since the system is set up to feed customers who have price as a primary concern, it rejects the 95% lean ground beef.

Your goals aren’t in harmony with the system, so you’re going to lose.

You want employees that are trained to think on their feet, and are empowered to help you? You’re in the wrong place – the system doesn’t want that.

You are, in a figurative sense, barking up the wrong tree.

Expecting Apples From A Cherry Tree

You can sit at the base of a cherry tree and wait for apples. You can coax, you can cajole, you can scream, you can rant. You can even try watering it, fertilizing it, and holding up pictures of apples.

It doesn’t matter. No apples will be forthcoming.

McDonald’s is the cherry tree. It’s tall, old, and has deep roots. The odds of it changing in response to anything you do are minimal.

Why does this come as a shock to us?

Go Find An Apple Tree!

The key to being reasonably happy in our current society is in finding systems whose principles are as close to yours as possible.

You’re probably not going to find a food-related business that’s not concerned with food waste and labor costs; that goes with the territory.

You may, however, be able to find a restaurant that treats their employees fairly, serves high-quality food, and tries to use recycled products as much as possible. I’d suggest that’s a good start.

Prices may well be higher, and that’s to be expected. By eliminating the aspects of the operation you don’t agree with, you’ve also eliminated the system that keeps prices low.

That’s part of the bargain.

The Real Question

I know that Gip and I have both spent quite a bit of time talking about systems, and that this may be confusing to some people.

The reason we keep coming back to systems is that they’re everywhere! Whether it’s your child’s school, your city’s government, or the places you shop, most of them are governed by a system of some sort.

The question isn’t one of if you participate in systems or not. They’re an unavoidable part of life.

The questions are, how much do you know about the systems you participate in? And knowing that, which ones are you a part of and why?

Robert says simple and deliberate things all the time at Untitled Minimalism. Stop by and see what he’s saying there today.

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  1. Great insights here Robert.

    Depending on the context in which we’re talking, systems are in place in increase productivity, lower costs/maximize profits, or even create social order.

    With the case of McDonald’s that you mention above, what I find interesting is that they invest the bare minimum in human resources (employees) and products (the food they sell), and instead allocate a MASSIVE amount of resources into marketing research and advertising.

    McDonald’s could literally sell us a steaming pile of cow dung sandwiched in between poisonous mushrooms and we would eat it up with a smile on our faces. In fact, that’s basically what they do now.

    Did you know that McDonald’s regularly targets three to five year old children with their advertisements? They’ve also been known to dabble quite heavily in subliminal messages where they include unthinkable images in their advertisements.

    I’ve gotten a bit off topic here, but I have a lot of problems with the way McDonald’s does business.

    Some systems are necessary to create a sense of order. Even though I recognize and participate in many systems (I wait in line to use a public restroom, I take a number at the DMV, I drive on the correct side of the street, etc.), I can see how blindly following any system without knowledge of why we’re doing it can be a real problem.

    For example, wearing an expensive brand of clothing because all of your friends wear that brand. On the surface, it may seem unrelated, but making decisions about purchases can be about following invisible social systems or norms that we’re not even consciously aware of.
    Jenny @ exconsumer recently posted How to Stop Dreaming and Start Achieving

    1. I think the way McDonalds allocates resources makes a lot of sense, given their goals and their business model.

      After all, it takes a really excellent product to develop a loyal following – yet advertising can take an average (or even sub-par) product and position it as the leader in the field.

      I think that as you become aware of some systems, others (that you didn’t know about previously) appear. Which is why awareness is so important!

      Thanks for the comments Jenny!
      Robert Wall recently posted The Line In The Sand

      1. Yes, Robert, it “makes sense” in that it fulfills their goal of making as much money as possible without regard to quality or ethics. Sadly, that tends to be the goal of more and more businesses.

        Like you said, though, we all have the option of not participating in systems we don’t agree with. That includes companies whose business practices I find to be offensive.
        Mike | Homeless On Wheels recently posted Why I Don’t Carry A Smartphone

        1. That last line of your comment is my whole point. 🙂

          In order to evaluate whether or not something is a situational glitch (even the best businesses screw up), you put yourself in the shoes of the people running the system.

          Then based on what you find, you can consciously avoid systems that you find offensive, and participate in ones that are in tune with what you believe.

          What’s really funny though is that when I was working at a McDonald’s, one of their training manuals said something along the lines of “we believe that you can’t find a better hamburger anywhere, at any price”.

          You feel like looking at the person doing the training and saying, “Really? Is this for real?”

          Thanks for commenting Mike!
          Robert Wall recently posted The Line In The Sand

    2. Speaking of targeting kids, Jenny, McDonald’s also adds sugar to everything (like french fries) or extra sugar where only a little is needed (buns) because it’s like a drug to kids. That’s why kids love McDonald’s so much. Sadly neither the kids nor parents realize that it’s the sugar they’re hooked on.
      Mike | Homeless On Wheels recently posted Why I Don’t Carry A Smartphone

      1. I used to work there, and I didn’t know about the added sugar in the fries.

        I did some reading and it looks like it’s probably a negligible amount of sugar (when compared to the total product volume/weight), but even straight-up white potatoes are a simple enough carbohydrate that they’d cause a heck of a spike in blood sugar.

        That’s the thing – highly refined simple carbohydrates are largely equivalent when it comes to their effect on blood sugar. White flour (the bun), potatoes (the fries), and corn syrup (the soda) are all pretty much the same in the effect they have on your body.

        When you take that and combine it with vegetable fat (the fries), animal fat (the burger), and a small amount of protein (the burger), you have an incredibly un-balanced meal that will leave your blood sugar elevated, but you not all that satisfied.

        Thanks for commenting Mike!
        Robert Wall recently posted The Line In The Sand

    1. I admit to liking their ice cream and their $1 iced tea.

      I also admit that I worked there, too, for about four months in college — maybe a bit longer. We were in a mall, so no really early mornings and no late nights. I was the breakfast cook most of the time — when they still cooked food fresh instead of staging it hours before.


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