System Archetype 9: Fixes that Fail

System Dynamics & Systems Thinking
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Aniket Deolikar
Consultant, India

System Archetype 9: Fixes that Fail

Description of Fixes that Fail

One of the System Archetypes is "Fixes that Fail". A solution to a problem which is very effective in the short term may have long-lasting consequences which may require a similar fix again. The archetype "Fixes that Fail" may sound somewhat like "Shifting the Burden" where more focus is given on treating problem symptoms rather than finding the root cause of the problem and instead of working on a fix on the deeper cause which is a more tiresome process.
The difference between the fixes that fail and the shifting the burden is in the consequences that are happening from the quick fix, which works totally fine but sometimes leads to a long-term problem again. Where in shifting the burden, the fundamental problem may have an effect for a limited time as it is not solved but the symptoms are treated.

Early warning Symptom of Fixes that Fail

The trademark statement of this archetype is "This worked before, why isn't it working now?" This happens because managers try to use the first solution which comes to their mind. This should tell you that the short-term fix has failed and need to be addressed.

Structure of Fixes that Fail

Management Principle (What to do?)

You must find out if the solution is addressing all the issues of the problem, or only the critical ones. If it is not addressing all, then issues which currently are trivial might become critical in the future and the current solution won't work on them. So, your quick solution might be useless for the long term. You may feel that currently we only have this critical issue so let's continue with the solution but don't let that happen. As a manager, it's your duty to check the solution thoroughly and focus on the long-term aspects to deal with the problem properly. If it's very urgent then you may use the short fix to buy more time to work on the long-term fix.

Business Example of Fixes that Fail

For many years, the tobacco industry didn't accept that there were any illness effects on the health of people from smoking. They were spending a huge amount on advertising and this did allowed them to sell more. But eventually, as years passed by and the evidence of ill effects of smoking were coming out and could not be denied anymore, no advertising or PR could save the tobacco industry from accepting the fact that smoking has various ill effects on health and it is facing immense legal claims.

Real-Life Example of Fixes that Fail

If you try to avoid regular preventive maintenance of some large machine to save some money, the machine may ultimately break down and cause a serious problem with your entire production process which will cost you a lot more than you saved.

⇨ 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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