When I was a child, in a country far, far away, there was no television.
It was South Africa, and what there was, was the SABC (look at page 8), divided into three categories: the A service (in English), the B service (in Afrikaans) and Springbok radio (with adverts! And popular music!).
And on the A service, every weekday afternoon there was a 15-minute children’s programme.
I’ve tried to find these programmes on the Internet, but they aren’t there, so we are going to have to rely on my memory. I remember a weekly programme where a woman called Midge talked to a squirrel called Frisky, and they played music requests and read out birthday wishes.
There was a serial about a pair of children who lived in what I now think was the Bo Kaap, voiced by Gabriel Bayman. I still find this strange – why in apartheid South Africa were the lives of coloured children being celebrated on a radio station for white people? Perhaps the intention was to indoctrinate us into the supposed inferiority of coloured people? If so, it didn’t work. The lives of those children sounded wonderful to me, and their walks up and down a windy hill sounded impossibly exotic (we lived in Johannesburg at the time). I wanted to be where they were, to be friends with them. But that was a dream that could only come true a long time in the future.
And then there was a rather strange serial about a family in which the father was a time-and-motion scientist. He was the comic relief (when I think about it now) and kept making his children do things like take baths in which he would time how long each component of the bath routine took, and then make them bath again, taking more measurements, until he could get bathtime down to mere minutes.
It is telling that all these years later I remember the father clearly (he had an American accent) but have no clue as to who the children were or what the rest of the plotlines might have been.
I was fascinated by the idea of time and motion study, by the idea that you could apply systems and knowledge to everyday things, in order to make them more efficient.
It was an early indication of my lifelong interest in systems – how they work, what they do, how they can help make human life better.
(Systems thinking also underlies my true superpower: the ability to untie knots. You just have to start in one place and follow the steps until the piece of string is straight again. Simple really.)
A look at my posts over the years shows how often I talk about systems:
A system for getting things done
Filter, filter, filter – the key to email organisation
Simple self-care – just get organised
A tip for working with multiple tabs in a browser
Three ways to save time by getting things done faster
How to make a list that lasts
Curation: How to find shareable content for your readers
I know that a lot of people think systems are boring, or nerdish, or “not fun”. And yet, so much of society runs on systems (just think of trying to distribute a Covid vaccine without a system). And so many things could be made easier by applying systems thinking.
One mundane example: when I was young, we had a linen cupboard. Indeed, many people have linen cupboards. In our house, I abolished this years ago. Applying systems thinking, I wondered about the inherent silliness of taking all the laundry off beds in different rooms, washing it, folding it and then putting it all in a central place. Only to have to take it all out of that central place and carry it around from room to room in order to change the beds.
In our house, all washing gets folded and then put away in the room it belongs in, all in one go! Kid’s bedroom cupboard has kid’s bedding and kid’s clothes in one place, at the same time. You have cut out that distribution step from the linen cupboard, and saved time. Plus there’s now a cupboard or shelf that you can use for other things.
That man in the children’s serial would have loved me!
If you would like to apply systems thinking in your own life, I’d suggest the following steps:
1. Identify a task that seems irritating and futile (opening and closing the kitchen cupboard doors every time you take something out or put it away, for example).
2. Throw away any preconceptions you have about how things “ought” to be (kitchen cupboards must have doors… surely they must?).
3. Figure out what would make this process simpler by thinking through the steps in the process and seeing where the inefficiency is (taking the doors off the cupboards! yes!).
4. Implement your change and see what happens. In the case of the cupboard doors, the fear of course is dust and grease getting on the dishes. But if the dishes get washed often, that’s not an issue. In our kitchen, the cupboard with the everyday plates and glasses has no doors. Everything else still has them – not used so often, so the doors are less irritating.
If you can apply systems thinking to something simple, and like the result, you can scale up to pretty much anything. Email? No problem. Getting big projects done? No problem.
Figuring out where all the pairs of scissors go? I’m still working on it.