I’ll have no truck with that

by Carl Dyke

My commute keeps working as an example of systems in my Systems reading circle for our online program. The book is Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems.

My truck is in the shop right now, and that has my lenses on two different kinds of system.

The truck itself is an example of an important kind of system that is NOT what Meadows is talking about in this book. It’s a mechanical or “complicated” system. It has lots of parts and they have to fit together and work properly in exactly the right way for the whole system to work. The truck is designed and engineered for this function. When all is well, it works in a precise and precisely predictable way. 

It’s pretty awesome, and it’s pretty tough. But I was doing some tree and brush work out in the big field and I must have caught a brake line on something sticking up, and the fluid leaked out. No fluid, no brakes.

I commute 35 miles, and the truck is just useless for that without brakes. That’s the thing about designed systems, they only work within their engineering tolerances and they’re brittle outside of them. What this situation called for is flexibility, resilience, and adaptability. A very good driver well equipped with flexibility, resilience, and adaptability could probably get away with a trip like that without brakes. Pay attention, leave space, use the gears, friction is your friend. I got 250,000 miles out of a set of brakes on my old VW by driving like that for fun. But the road is full of uncontrolled variables (as a system it’s not complicated, it’s complex), so having no brake backup at all is a very risky play. I took the truck to the shop and put on my complex system lenses.

The solution was easy, and no big deal. My wife has a farm van she could spare for a day or two. She unloaded the feed grain, I offered to fill up the tank, and I was in business. None of that was a designed function of our little system, but it was an opportunity available in the elements and interconnections of our partnership that allowed us to adapt nimbly to an unplanned difficulty.

The commute itself is a tangle of systemic interdependence. We could say that I am the “manager” in this quote from Meadows:

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. . . . Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes. —RUSSELL ACKOFF, 1 operations theorist”

The road itself is certainly a mess. There are all sorts of other people on it. I don’t control them, and neither does the law. They can and do go as fast as they like, change lanes when they like, brake when they like. Freedom is uncertainty. None of that is automated, it’s all read and react. Each day’s commute involves a series of dynamic situations with changing problems that interact with each other. Try the systems lens the next time you’re driving, it will blow your mind. The computer it would take to calculate and control all of those trajectories and interactions does not exist yet. Yet somehow, not despite all of this but BECAUSE of it, like the slinky, we all (mostly) get where we’re going. Here’s one of my favorite videos, to illustrate (I whip this out every time someone complains about the traffic circle in Pinehurst. Traffic circles are AMAZING, but they do hurt the brains of people who prefer design to dynamics.)


Another mess is international energy supply chains. It’s not an engineered or controlled system and can’t be, because it’s international and because markets are involved. That means getting the gas into Rachel’s van or my truck works a lot like getting me from Moore County to Fayetteville. There are a lot of players, they all have their own stakes and agendas, and they all get at least a little bit of a say in how their big or little part of it goes. The outcomes are ongoingly dynamic and adaptive, with, as Meadows says, a variety of information gaps and feedback lags that make it impossible to know exactly what the system is doing in all dimensions or predict exactly what it will be doing in future. And yet, when I pulled into the Sheetz yesterday to gas up the van, the supply was there and the cost was ridiculously low for all the costs of building and maintaining roads and all the steps of extraction, refinement, logistics, and distribution it took to provide it. Amazing!

Aaaaand, right on cue, this arrives from the campus public safety office.

Whew…time flies, it seems like just yesterday you were arriving on campus! Hopefully, all is going well, and you’ve gotten settled into a routine, got your rooms all put together and figured out where your classes are because we are closing in on the end of the second week of this semester….Already, can you believe it?

With all those other things becoming habit we would like to remind you that safety is paramount on campus, but we can’t do it without each of you. To be more specific, vehicle and pedestrian safety is on the top of the list. When you are driving on campus, please remember to operate your vehicle safely and remember to abide by the posted speed limit on campus (15 mph campus roads, 5 mph parking lots). On the opposite side of the coin, if you are a pedestrian, please be aware of your surroundings and make sure you are safe when walking through parking lots or across roadways.

Good luck with that, amiright?


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