System Archetype 3: Shifting the Burden

System Dynamics & Systems Thinking
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Aniket Deolikar
Consultant, India

System Archetype 3: Shifting the Burden

Description of Shifting the Burden

One of the System Archetypes is "Shifting the Burden". In this type of organizational problem, a temporary or short-term solution is applied to solve the problem which yields satisfying results. But the more this short-term solution is used, the less fundamental long-term measures are taken. Eventually, the effect of the fundamental solution may fade away, in the long term leading to more severe problems.
The focus should be treating the cause rather than the symptom. In this archetype, people tend to treat the symptoms rather than focusing on the root cause. Many times, the short-term treatments may treat the symptom, but the problem may create the symptom again, or create a different symptom, or have a side effect which affects the fundamental solution and even that solution may cease to work. So, the actual problem solution will only be achieved when we solve the root cause.

Early Warning Symptoms of Shifting the Burden

People might say "We found a fix for the problem and it works fine but we didn't really know what caused it. If this happens again, we'll use the same fix".
However, down the road, there may be more complicated problems occurring. So by identifying such behavior, a manager can figure out that this is a case of shifting the burden and take appropriate measures.

Structure of Shifting the Burden

Management Principle (What to do?)

The best thing managers can do in this case is to focus on root cause and on a fundamental solution. If some symptoms appear and the short-term solution is very necessary then they should that quick fix to buy more time, but working on the fundamental solution is still necessary! So, try to identify the root cause of the problem, apply some symptomatic solutions if needed to buy more time, and once the root cause is found out, try to apply the long-term (fundamental) solution.

Business Example of Shifting the Burden

Suppose a new circuit board technology has been developed that can be used to develop unique functionality in product innovation. But it can also be used as a substitute to existing boards used in the current products. Salespeople can sell it to the "specialty customers" who will use the technology to create new products that can use the technology really well. We can call that the fundamental solution. Or they might sell them to "commodity customers" who just want to replace existing boards in the products they already have (symptomatic solution) and do not care about the special properties of the product. Note that as there is typically pressure to meet the targets, the salespeople will sell the product to whoever is ready to buy. These people will mostly be commodity customers as there are more of them in number and the sale is probably easier. Due to this, the new technology may eventually fail to develop a loyal customer base and become a commodity due to pressures of margins and price.

Real Life Example of Shifting the Burden

People try to pay their bills by borrowing some money, rather than making a proper budgeting plan. This behavior of short-term solutions leads them into a lot of debt which could have been avoided by focusing on the root cause (they spend too much) and implement a fundamental solution (spend less).
Another example of this can be people who use alcohol or drugs to relieve work stress. As a result they do not develop the strength to face the workload and depend on alcohol and drugs whenever they face a high workload. Dependency on the symptomatic solution (drugs or alcohol) may end up making them addicted to the symptomatic solution and they will never focus on the fundamental solution.

⇨ Feel free to add more management situations which you might have faced and what you did to tackle them...

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline Appendix 2: Systems Archetypes", 1990.
William Braun, "The System Archetypes", February 2002


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