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Shifting the Burden

December 22nd, 2010 3 comments

The Shifting the Burden Systems Archetype shows how attacking symptoms, rather than identifying and fixing fundamental problems, can lead to a further dependence on symptomatic solutions.  This Systems Archetype was formally identified in Appendix 2 of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (1990).  The Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) is shown below.

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When a problem symptom appears, two options present themselves:  1) apply a short-term fix to the symptom, or 2) identify and apply a longer-term fix to the fundamental issue.  The second option is less attractive because it involves a greater time delay and probably additional cost before the problem symptom is relieved.  However, applying a short-term fix, as a result of relieving the problem symptoms sooner, reduces the desire to identify and apply a more permanent fix.  Often the short-term fix also induces a secondary unintended side-effect that further undermines any efforts to apply a long-term fix.  Note that the short-term fix only relieves the symptoms, it does not fix the problem.  Thus, the symptoms will eventually re-appear and have to be addressed again.

Classic examples of shifting the burden include:

  • Making up lost time for homework by not sleeping (and then controlling lack of sleep with stimulants)
  • Borrowing money to cover uncontrolled spending
  • Feeling better through the use of drugs (dependency is the unintended side-effect)
  • Taking pain relievers to address chronic pain rather than visiting your doctor to try to address the underlying problem
  • Improving current sales by focusing on selling more product to existing customers rather than expanding the customer base
  • Improving current sales by cannibalizing future sales through deep discounts
  • Firefighting to solve business problems, e.g., slapping a low-quality – and untested – fix onto a product and shipping it out the door to placate a customer
  • Repeatedly fixing new problems yourself rather than properly training your staff to fix the problems – this is a special form known as “shifting the burden to the intervener” where you are the intervener who is inadvertently eroding the capabilities and confidence of your staff (the unintended side-effect)
  • Outsourcing core business competencies rather than building internal capacity (also shifting the burden to the intervener, in this case, to the outsource provider)
  • Implementing government programs that increase the recipient’s dependency on the government, e.g., welfare programs that do not attempt to simultaneously address low unemployment or low wages (also shifting the burden to the intervener, in this case, to the government)

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