Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Delays in feedback loops are critical determinants of system behavior. They are common causes of oscillations. If you’re trying to adjust a system state to your goal, but you only receive delayed information about what the system state is, you will overshoot and undershoot. Same if your information is timely, but your response isn’t. For example, it takes several years to build an electric power plant, and then that plant lasts, say, thirty years.

Those delays make it impossible to build exactly the right number of plants to supply a rapidly changing demand. Even with immense effort at forecasting, almost every electricity industry in the world experiences long oscillations between overcapacity and undercapacity. A system just can’t respond to short-term changes when it has long-term delays. That’s why a massive central-planning system, such as the Soviet Union or General Motors, necessarily functions poorly.