No matter what your business does—transporting cargo, delivering better health care, protecting the environment—every organization produces things. But too often, people lose sight of what exactly it is that they produce—and thus they don't produce it very well. The key question that needs to be asked is: "What is it that you actually do?"
When we asked how his organization helps children, for example, the CEO of one of our non-profit clients said that they advocate for better laws. "Well, how do you do that?" we asked. He responded that they analyze pending legislation and recommend changes. "How do you do that?" They have smart lawyers and lobbyists who work with congressional staff. "How do you do that?" They keep a record of everyone who's voted on similar legislation and, based on their voting record, decide who is a swing vote and focus attention there.
So now we're getting somewhere. The next question is: "Who's the customer for that analysis?" And, "Are they completely satisfied?" It turns out the customer is a specific group of lobbyists who regularly visit members of Congress. "Are they happy with the nonprofit's analysis of members' voting records?" When asked, those customers told us that the analysis only looked at certain votes, so its predictive value was limited. More time spent looking at different votes would yield better information and a better likelihood of finding swing votes—and a more effective job at advocating for better laws.
We see this pattern particularly in public service agencies and nonprofits: lost behind the important mission is an understanding of the specific work that needs to get done and who the customer is for that work. Getting to the bottom of that question is the work of systems thinking. As one CEO put it when his organization embarked on this exercise: "It may not be glamorous. But it improves results, so it's far better than what we've been doing up until now."