Good health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." WHO, 1948.
Good health describes a holistic state. People who are healthy are generally happy. They are comfortable in their skin. They can walk up a steep hill and not get winded. They enjoy being active even into old age. Arthritis is kept at bay. They are not stressed – or if they are, can handle it adeptly. Good health is the big picture – the result of many parts working together harmoniously. It cannot be measured by one metric. It is an outcome.
Let’s say that you want to embark upon a healthier existence. How would you tackle it? You could do so from many angles. You might say that you want to lose weight, improve your HbA1c, reduce blood pressure, resting heart rate, or cholesterol. Maybe you’d like to stop taking anti-depressants. Maybe you just want to feel better, overall. All of these are indicators of facets of health, and each one of these measurements is important and gives you an indication of progress made. However, each one, stand alone, does not satisfy the definition of health nor give you an adequate picture of it. Because even if we reduce our Hb1AC from 5.5 to 4.0, we may still be tired or depressed. And maybe we’ve successfully reduced our cholesterol by taking medications, but we still can’t walk up that hill. So has our health really improved?
Let’s say that you’re into your health journey by a couple of months. You've been watching what you eat, exercising, meditating, laughing. How would you know that you’re healthier? Well, picture this. Let’s take the elements of your body and put them on a table. Musculoskeletal system on one side of the table. Nerves on another. Blood vessels in the chair. Respiratory system and brain at the far end. Chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol in a heap on the floor. How would you know that you were healthier by looking at your body this way, in components? Each component would have to be studied independently and weighed against what was going on with the other components. You might observe that your blood vessels have less plaque, for example, but also notice that your lungs have not gained additional capacity. Your dopamine levels indicate slower uptake, but cortisol is still high. Hmmm. It would be a very laborious and cumbersome way to understand your health. Is it even possible? What if you could just see the big picture?
Whether it’s personal or business, knowing overall system health is important. And knowing it quickly is critical.
Far too many businesses are silo’d in ways that make insight into health very difficult. Marketing is in one location, sales in another, development onshore, testing offshore, releases are managed by yet another group. Consumers are far removed from development teams vis-à-vis multiple layers of product managers who each handle a subsequent level of refinement in a product backlog. And while it’s interesting, and perhaps useful (?) to some limited degree to understand how all of these parts function in silo, it’s much, much more important to understand the overarching health of the body/business. How are they functioning as a whole? So how do we do that?
The best way to understand system health is to integrate the system and measure its outcomes by looking at some balanced key indicators. So let’s put your bones and muscles back together, heart and lungs attached, brain pushing it all along… now we can see you laughing, smiling, skin in good condition, with perhaps a more lithe and agile movement about you, and if your blood tests come back within range we can probably deduce that you’re a pretty healthy person. Now we have the complete picture. Likewise, in our businesses, bring consumers closer to development, integrate quality practices alongside delivery, create safety for collaboration and risk-taking. Yes: reorganize. Bring it all together and make the focus delivering smaller bit of value, together, as a system, and quickly adopt feedback based on those deliveries – now we can tell how we’re doing at delivering value as a system. Seems almost too easy, doesn’t it? When we’re silo’d it takes much too long to bring that picture together, to understand the pieces and parts, when really, the pieces and parts don’t really matter as stand alone units. The system does. So what if Sales team is selling stuff if the Development team can’t keep up! Measure outcomes like time to value, quality, consumer happiness, employee happiness - not the efficiency of silos!
Focusing on delivering smaller batches of value, end to end, as a complete system is the only way to know if 1) value has truly been delivered and 2) how we’re doing at delivering it. Silos kill, and the good health of one silo could be the bad health of another.
Small bits of value represent the thin vertical slice of a business system.