An Inadvertent Introduction to Systems Thinking

Shortly after being graduated from college, I landed a job at Bloomingdale’s in New York. I started a division superintendent: one of the people with the white flower who takes returns — in my case, mostly pantyhose as my colleagues and I ran Fashion Accessories. Three of us supervised 80-or-so union salespeople and oversaw about a quarter of the bustling main floor of the flagship of the store that was “like no other store in the world.” Andy Warhol swung by occasionally dropping off copies of Interview. We worked crazy hours. And I learned first lesson about systems thinking — or lack thereof.

Among the things our bosses in Operations drilled into us was the idea that we should take back anything from any customer because 70% of them would spend more than the amount of the return before they left the store.  The merhcants, however, would come screeching down after us if we took back something they couldn’t return to a vendor. Their compensation was based, in part, on the performance of their department while the rest of us rose and fell with the sales of the overall area and the store as a whole.

Somehow management expected this to just work itself out. However, Bloomingdale’s of that time had a merchant-driven culture. Some of the most legendary merchants of the second half of the 20th century ran the place: Kal Ruttenstein for fashion, Julian Tomchin for home accessories, Carl Levine for furniture — and atop them all was the legendary Marvin Traub. Together they made the store stand out through the merchandise that it carried and the merchants were under intense pressure to find new, different, exciting, and of-the-moment goods that customers would be unable to resist. They did a great job in that regard. Unfortunately, my colleagues and I were the ones on the front lines who had to deal with customers, and the contradictions, when the returns came back.

Systems thinking wasn’t much in evidence when thinking about how all facets of the company interacted with customers. The early 80s were the time of great growth in the catalog industry. Unfortunately for a customer, you couldn’t be assured of being able to buy what you saw in the catalog in the store (or return it there if you bought it from the catalog). The back-end businesses were run separately — and there were good reasons for doing so — but executives didn’t seem to understand that wherever a customer saw the Bloomingdale’s name, she expected to be treated as if it were the same company. This problem persists today with many retailers and, frankly, it’s dumb. Some have become clever at offering work-arounds, like letting you order from the catalog in the store,  but it is still an imperfect system.

I’ve come a long way in systems thinking since then but remembering how I felt about these experiences at the very beginning of my career tells me either that I came to this position early, or perhaps we all have this natural inclination but learning and working in siloed organizations with rewards based on fragemented performance measures drives it out of us.

I feel passionately that the big problems we face now — climate change, health care reform, global health and poverty to name but a few — are systems problems that will require systems solutions.

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