From "Performance Improvement" to system's approach: the New Orleans case.
This year's the traditional International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Conference will take place in a city that is a case of "performance improvement" gone wrong: New Orleans.
A recent article on The New Yorker titled "Louisiana disappearing coast" exposes a typical case of societal and environmental performance: the "solutions" to the floods are causing the coastal line (and therefore part of Louisiana's state) to wash away in the Gulf of Mexico.
The complex levee systems built for "flood control" during the 1920s and 1930s during the tenure of populist governor Huey Long and his successors to prevent disastrous floods that regularly stroke Lousiana's coastal cities has created a much worse problem: the erosion and sinking of large areas of the state for the combination of lack of sediment accumulation that causes them to sink progressively under sea level. And the Gulf is advancing regularly over the state land, forcing to build taller levees that only accentuate the problem.
In the fight of state against Nature, the Mississippi river and the Gulf of Mexico have been winning not just in spite of "performance improvement" levees systems, but because of them.
The article shows the "PI-solution"-created problem in stark terms:
"Since the days of Huey Long, Louisiana has shrunk by more than two thousand square miles. If Delaware or Rhode Island had lost that much territory, the U.S. would have only forty-nine states. Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land. Every few minutes, it drops a tennis court’s worth. On maps, the state may still resemble a boot. Really, though, the bottom of the boot is in tatters, missing not just a sole but also its heel and a good part of its instep.
A variety of factors are driving the “land-loss crisis,” as it’s come to be called. But the essential one is a marvel of engineering. Thousands of miles of levees, flood walls, and revetments have been erected to manage the Mississippi. As the Army Corps of Engineers once boasted, “We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it.” This vast system, built to keep southern Louisiana dry, is the very reason the region is disintegrating, coming apart like an old shoe."
The difference between the "formal" and the "actual" maps is staggering:
The solution to the problems caused by previous mechanical solutions depend on adopting a system rather than a "systems' approach: instead of fighting against Nature, Louisiana and New Orleans learned to work with the forces of the Mississippi river -whose floods create and accumulate fertile soil over time- and the sea -whose tides eat away whatever is under its level-,
Instead of building taller levee walls, the idea is to dig "crevasses" that help regulate floods to bring in enough filling soil to recover the loss of land.
This "City Doctors" approach turns "performance improvement" into "systemic transformation", It goes from "flood control" to "controlled flooding". And it might end solving the real problem.
This is also a good example of what we described in our 2008 paper "Surviving PI solutions: aligning PI interventions"
That's what ISPI Global Network is proposing with City Doctors. (www.doctors4cities.org) and the Social and Organizational Performance concept based on Mega planning taught at the Performance Improvement Institute (www.piionline.org)