Systems Thinking &

Mowing the Grass

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A neighbor’s difficulty getting his lawn mowed helps illustrate the how systems thinking can apply to what we do in everyday life, and to our warehouse and logistics operations.

It is Saturday. Here is our neighbor, Frank, pulling and pulling on the lawn mower’s rope starter. The machine does not start. Finally, after some colorful language and much exertion, he pulls out some tools and starts to take apart the mower. He first removes the spark plug to see if it is wet from flooding. The plug is clean and dry, so the problem must be that the gas is not getting past the carburetor.

Next, he takes off the air filter and starts to look into the top of the carburetor. All the linkages appear to be working, and he can see that the choke and throttle butterfly valves are operating as they should. He sniffs the top opening and can’t smell gas. Well, that could be a plugged jet, or maybe the needle valve is gummed up. He sprays some carb cleaner into the top of the carburetor and attempts to start the mower again. That does not work either.

Off comes the carburetor for a trip to the bench. He finds a rotted-out fuel line when he removes the carb, capturing the leaking gasoline. A few minutes later at the bench he finds more parts in bad condition.

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Luckily, he still has the manual for the mower, so he looks up the part numbers. Figuring out what he needs, our neighbor takes off to the local mower store.

At the lawn mower store, after looking through the stock, the clerk tells Frank that he does not have the parts, but he can order them. They fill out the paperwork, Frank pays in advance (per the store’s policy for special order parts), and heads home.

On Monday night Frank gets home and sees a message light blinking on the answering machine. It is a message from the mower shop. The clerk says that they ordered the parts today, Monday, and it will take about three weeks for all the parts to arrive.

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 Three weeks. In June?

Frank starts to think of what three weeks in June is going to do to his lawn. The grass is going to grow tall — really tall. His neighbor on the other side, Mrs. Kravis, is a very nosy and picky woman. She will be sure to get upset when she sees how tall his grass is getting. She will make comments to him about mowing the grass.

Frank thinks he will just ignore her, or tell her that the mower is broken, the parts are on order, and he will mow the grass after the parts come in. He thinks about that for another moment, remembering what Mrs. Kravis did when he did not rake the leaves for a few weeks last fall. Yep, she called the Homeowner’s Association office and complained. The HOA sent him a letter and a $25 fine for the leaves.

redneck mower.jpg Oh, this is a bigger problem than he thought.

He pulls out the phone book and calls a local landscape contractor to arrange to get the lawn mowed. The first place is booked up, the second can’t get someone out until Friday, but the third place can get the job done in the morning, for $55.

Fifty-five bucks. That is twice the cost of the fine. It is also twice the cost of the parts.

For a moment, with a smile on his face, Frank dreams of getting a goat to keep in the yard. That would drive Mrs. Kravis nuts.

Still, the goat is not a viable solution. The county ordnance doesn’t allow farm animals in yards.

An Alternate System

What different path could our neighbor take? Think about it for a minute. Anything he does following this system results in a delay. There is always a delay in any system. The delay in this case is three weeks, and that delay brings the complication of an outside influence — Mrs. Kravis and her complaints — into the system. The alternatives (landscapers and goats) all have associated additional costs and additional unintended and unwanted consequences.

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What if Frank uses a different system to get the parts he needs?

Moving the cycle back to the point where he discovers he needs parts, let's change the system. Frank writes down the model number of the mower and goes to his computer. He Googles the mower and finds over a dozen different places that have the parts he needs, including one that guarantees delivery within three days!

So Frank orders the parts, and on Tuesday they are waiting for him on the doorstep when he gets home. He gets the mower fixed that night, but not in time to mow the yard. As he washes up after fixing the mower, Frank’s wife tells him she has time to mow the grass in the morning, and on Wednesday morning, she mows the yard.

By choosing a different supply system, we bring about a completely different outcome. In this alternative scenario, the parts cost the same as from the local shop, including shipping. This option delivers much better value than the original system, since Mrs. Kravis does not get worked up to make the call to the HOA, and our neighbor avoids the less attractive alternatives, like hiring a landscaper or a goat.

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