Many producers are rightfully proud of their “quick-fix” skills, often characterized by the old phrase “held together by baling wire and duct tape.” However, the same attitude can creep into managerial decisions regarding the cow-calf operation, where such quick fixes can lead to bigger, unforeseen problems down the road.

Take weaning weights, for instance. A patch for low weights might be higher-milk females. More milk, however, could entail less efficient cows for your particular land resource, which could result in a bigger supplemental feed requirement or a forced reduction in stocking rate.

Barry Dunn, executive director and Endowed Chair of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management (KRIRM) at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, says 80% of such “symptom-focused” solutions never deliver the value expected. That's because the philosophy is rooted in some big misconceptions. These common misconceptions include:

  • The connection between a problem and its cause is always obvious and easy to trace.

  • Placing blame — others inside or outside the organization are responsible for the problem. They're the ones who need to change.

  • A policy designed to lead to short-term success will also assure long-term success.

  • In order to optimize the whole, you must optimize the parts.

  • The best way to implement change is to aggressively tackle many independent initiatives simultaneously.

Perhaps there's a better way

While this philosophy is often applied in problem solving, Dunn says the fixes often carry unintended side effects that can lead to bigger problems that are much harder to diagnose.

What's needed, Dunn says, is a different philosophy — one that adheres to principles such as these:

  • The relationship between problems and their causes is indirect and not obvious.

  • Don't point the finger. We all contribute to our own problems. Everyone is acting reasonably and responsibly; no one is to blame.

  • Most quick fixes make no long-term difference, and can actually worsen the situation in the long run.

  • To optimize the whole, we must improve the relationships among the parts.

  • Only a few high-leverage interventions are needed for a large systems change.

Dunn says such an approach runs counter to a culture more used to seeking quick fixes, but these latter tenets — the basis for “systems thinking” management — offer the potential for better long-term efficiency and results.

How systems work

Systems thinking is designed to help folks understand more deeply how an organization really operates by enabling them to focus on the relationships among the parts, not just the parts themselves. The management philosophy was the focus of the second annual, weeklong KRIRM lectureship entitled “Using a Systems Approach for Ranch Problem Solving” this fall. Leading the workshop was Mike Goodman, a principal of Innovation Associates Organizational Learning and a guru of systems-thinking management.

Goodman, a world-renowned lecturer and consultant, has a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master's degree and studied under Jay Forrestor, the MIT Sloan School Of Management professor emeritus and founder of systems dynamics. Incidentally, Forrester grew up on a cattle ranch his family still owns in the Nebraska Sandhills, and often credits his years on the ranch for his ability to see interrelationships in complex systems, Dunn says.

Goodman told attendees, “Systems thinking is all about trying to figure out why something is happening, not what to do about it. It's a system that's 90% diagnosis and 10% treatment, rather than the 10:90 ratio generally used in quick-fix responses.”

Goodman likens the situation to a floating iceberg. The iceberg's very peak is the easily recognizable symptom or event. Beneath that, but still above the waterline, are trends and patterns, which also are fairly easy to discern with a little study.

The largest portion of that iceberg, however, lies obscured beneath the waterline, he says. These are the forces and pressures operating within the system, something that's not so easily understood or dissected.

The events or symptoms, he says, can be reacted to, while trends and patterns can be anticipated.

“But if we can understand the underlying structure well enough, we can change it,” Goodman says. “This is the opportunity to influence the events and patterns in our favor.”

Asking “why,” not “how to”

In the KRIRM workshop, 20 participants split into five work groups for the week were charged with examining a specific and chronic, long-standing, ranch-management problem. The topic of study in each group was posed as a “why” or “how come” question, rather than “how to.”

For instance, “Why don't cow-calf producers incorporate more technology in their operations?” was one study group's focusing question. Other groups' areas of study dealt with calf marketing and the cattle cycle, managing for both cattle and wildlife, and adoption of intensive grazing techniques. The next three days were spent in applying various tools of systems thinking to the problem.

The aim of the week's exercise, Dunn says, wasn't to produce specialists in systems thinking. In fact, the discipline is a lifelong learning process — much akin to learning an entirely new language with all it prerequisite vocabulary, structure and rules.

But, Dunn says, even in its simplest form, the discipline is applicable in ranch management because it forces managers to respect the interrelationship of components.

Systems thinking is utilized by some of the world's largest business organizations. It's a sort of a pumped-up consumer version of the beef industry's Integrated Resource Management (IRM) program where the effect of a management change in one aspect of a beef-cattle operation is considered in other operation components.

Systems thinking is a principal component in the KRIRM master's degree program, which accepted its first students in fall 2004. The program's aim is to train students in all areas of ranch management — from range and wildlife management to finance and personnel management. It's a two-year, intensive study program that accepts two students each academic year.

Where most graduate degrees are research degrees, Dunn says this degree focuses on case studies where students function in a natural system and complete case studies on the most well-managed ranches in the U.S. For more information, visit http://krirm.tamuk.edu/.

Systems thinking on the ranch

Jason Sawyer, a Texas A&M University assistant professor in beef cattle nutrition and management in College Station, participated in the week-long KRIRM workshop this fall. He says he found the workshop “a great introduction to systems thinking. It gave me some insight into how to take a set of tools from outside of agriculture and learn to apply that thought process to production agriculture problems.”

He believes the systems dynamics process could help ranchers greatly in “operation clarity.”

“I think it would help producers better recognize their problems and opportunities, as well as the ruts they've fallen into,” Sawyer says.

“In is simplest form, it's just being aware of interrelationships. It's a systematic way for producers to evaluate the big picture and really hold their business at arms' length,” Sawyer says. “Most producers are so close to the situation, they don't realize how connected these various components really are.”

Resources

To learn more about systems dynamics, check out these sources:

  • “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter M. Senge. ISBN 0-385-26095-4.

  • “The Fifth Discipline Field-book” by Peter M. Senge, Richard Ross, Art Kleiner, Bryan Smith and Charlotte Roberts. ISBN 0-385-47256-0.

  • Pegasus Communications at www.pegasuscom.com

  • System Dynamics Society at www.systemdynamics.org

  • MIT Sloan School of Management at http://mitsloan.mit.edu