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Stuck in a Rut? Try Sketching Your "Perfect System"

What W.E. Deming and quality management can teach us about personal development and growth.

Jeremiah Rogers
Jeremiah Rogers
3 min read
Stuck in a Rut? Try Sketching Your "Perfect System"

Here's a pattern many of us are familiar with: we struggle to make a change, we finally get it done, and then just a short time later we find ourselves back where we started again.

I've seen these loops over and over again. They play in relationships, careers, money, health, and basically everywhere that a human gets involved.

They play out for me. For years I would get into a health mindset, start running and lifting weights aggressively, and then three months later find myself injured, stressed out, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The cycle repeated endlessly.

These cycles play out in my clients. One of my clients would gain almost one hundred pounds slowly over the course of two to three years, lose it very quickly in 6-12 months, and then repeat the cycle almost immediately to gain the weight back.

Why did I constantly fail to start running and always end up smoking again?

Why did my client gain and lose weight over and over again?

Why do so many of us with the best intentions repeatedly fail and end up back where we started?

A Perfect System

Today when I see these problems I think of a quote that has become famous in process engineering circles:

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

The quote was inspired by – and often misattributed to – W.E. Deming, the man considered the father of quality management.

Deming's insight was that when a factory produces a faulty part it is because the system to make the part is broken. Fix the system, fix the parts, fix the factory.

Deming's insight spread around the world and revolutionized manufacturing. Factories were redesigned with systems that close to guaranteed production success.

Thanks to W.E. Deming's work, today we can buy cars that are expected to last for 150,000+ miles and we have iPhones in our pockets built with the precision of scientific instruments.

What can this teach us about our lives?

Well – we may not think of them this way – but our lives are just like factories: we have inputs, systems, and results.

The systems in our lives are perfectly designed to get the results they get. If we keep getting bad results it's time to diagnose the system.

My Perfect System

How did I manage to start a health kick every six to twelve months but always end up injured and stressed out a few months later?

One day I sketched out my “perfect system” to repeatedly fail at fixing my health:

Step 1: Get sick of being unfit and decide to focus on my health.
Step 2: Begin an aggressive program of running and weight lifting.
Step 3: Get injured because my plan was too aggressive.
Step 4: Become frustrated that I was injured and deal with my stress in very unhealthy ways.
Step 5: Recover my injuries and return to Step 1.

What a revelation when I drew this out! This exact process had whipped me back and forth for years. I had never noticed just how obvious it was until I wrote it down as a system.

Once sketched out, it became clear that the highest leverage point was to remove Step 3. Stop getting injured!

If Step 3 stopped happening, the whole loop would break and I would be able to stay healthier far longer.

Today I am healthier than I have been in a long time. This is because stretching, mobility, and core strength have replaced running and weight lifting as the essentials of my fitness routine. Step 3 is dead.

Awareness of the system created that.

My Client's Perfect System

How about my client? The one who gained and lost almost 100 pounds repeatedly?

We sketched out his “perfect system”:

Step 1: Notice that he was overweight and panic.
Step 2: Begin an aggressive program of fasting and exercise for weight loss.
Step 3: Reach his ideal weight and stop fasting and stop exercising.
Step 4: Gain all of the weight back.
Step 5: Return to Step 1.

Just like me, my client had a perfect system to make his results appear and then disappear over and over again.

Just like me, a single step was needed to keep the machine humming. Step 3 made his metabolism turn around and undo months of progress.

As we dug into Step 3 it turned out my client knew how to overeat, and he knew how to under eat, but he had never learned how to eat at the rate required to maintain his bodyweight.

My client is now learning to eat at a healthy pace — for the first time in his life — and we believe it will lead to lasting change.

Step 3 is dead.

What's Your Perfect System?

How about you?

What system generates broken results for you over and over again? What loop would you would love to finally break?

If you drew the system out, how would it look and what step would you be you in today? What step tends to come next?

How might you fix the system so it stops producing broken results and starts producing amazing results?

Let me know. I'd love to hear about it.