Creating, Operating & Maintaining Systems — Nature’s way

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The Central Question & Its Answer

I loved solving this problem and loved this story. It gave me the fundamental enlightenment into systems and their behavior.

The central question that arises from this case is: What happens when we push any system away from its equilibrium position?

Once any system is pushed away from its equilibrium position, which we do by performing work, it tries hard to come back to its equilibrium position.

In order to do that any system will respond in only three ways:

a) It dissipates energy in form of vibrations (through oscillations, resonances, damping)

b) It dissipates energy in form of heat (through flow turbulence, energy waves)

c) It dissipates energy to self destruction in form of wear (self destructs to converts matter from one state to another to dissipate energy)

And it utilizes all the three methods simultaneously and in different ways at any given time as soon as any system is pushed away from equilibrium.

This is Nature's way to maintain equilibrium. That is her unique way to operate and maintain any system. She does that instantaneously with little or no delay but never reserves the action for a later time.

Restating the Famous 2nd Law — the heart of the Issue 

Can we understand such universal system behavior through the famous 2nd law of thermodynamics?

We know from 2nd law that while we can convert heat energy to work we can't convert all work to heat energy. Something must be lost. This we call 'entropy'. Though it is useful the famous law only tells us what a what a system can't do.

It does not tell us what a system can do. But what does a system actually do? Can we now restate the famous law in another way?

When we push any system from its equilibrium position the system would utilize all its resources and relationships between its different elements to come back to the equilibrium as soon as possible and try to maintain that state with the minimum dissipation as possible, failing which, it would either change the quality of motion or self destruct itself if allowed to continue in an undesirable state of motion.

These properties to vibrate, dissipate and wear out (different forms of dissipation and self destruction) are inherent properties available in all matter that respond creatively in a self organizing manner at all times simultaneously to the application of energy in form of work imposed on any system or matter to create ongoing emergent properties. Nothing can be stored for something to happen at a later time. It can only be delayed at best.

Hence Energy and Matter are interdependent on each other to create myriad self organizing patterns, where each pattern reflects and represents the system's condition at any given point in time and its desperate effort to come back to its equilibrium position and maintain itself in that position. It would try to do so in many creative ways. It is the source of all creativity, which I suspect is true for all living and nonliving matter even for human beings.

Creativity is expressed through dissipation (turbulence) and self destruction (resonance & wear).

For machines we can see such possible patterns through vibration signatures, pictures of heat flow patterns (thermograms) and distribution of worn particles of matter (ferrograph).

In business we see such patterns through patterns like production work flows, inventory and cash flows and losses. While the work done on the system is the flow of orders.

All these system patterns contain two vital information that aids our understanding.

The patterns represent state or condition of the system at any given time, which I call the 'emergence' or the present condition. This is caused by the interdependent play of system elements — the relationships between different elements and resources, which I call the essence. Hence, any pattern must exhibit the relationships that cause the emergent behavior of a system and must depict the emergence itself. For example, a vibration signature must contain the emergence and the essence.

A Simple Summary:

1. Work creates the condition for a system to move away from equilibrium (creation of possibilities). Dissipation maintains the system at equilibrium (maintenance through various creative possibilities). Destruction breaks down the system or degrades it if the system is unable to reach the equilibrium quickly enough (death, change of quality of motion or breakdown to various possible states).

2. Dissipation is done through flow turbulence, vibration, damping and dissipation of heat.

3. Destruction is basically done through force amplification, resonnance and wear and conversion of matter from one state to another.

4. Both proceed in macro and micro states where the present state is not quite similar to the previous. The transformation proceeds in its own time creating its own time scales a gross understanding of which can be obtained from trends over time. Though with such time trends tentative but generally inaccurate short term predictions are possible; accurate long term predictions of a system's behavior is never possible .

5. Why is it not possible to predict? Because both 'dissipation' and 'self-destruction' (an ultimate form of dissipation) are extremely creative processes. Both create new states in motion. We just don't know what would be created when. But while dissipation creates new states by maintaining the motion; destruction creates new states through cessation or slowing down of motion.

6. The play of dissipation and self destruction creatively create complexity, chaos and uncertainty that is full of possibilities (various states). This creates patterns.

7. In patterns we look for similarities in dissimilarities and dissimilarities in similarities. That increases our choice.

8. Hence, it is up to us to choose amongst the sets of possibilities that are favorable for our intended purpose that lend meaning of our existence and work.

9. The beauty of such possibilities is that it creates disorder through order and creates order through disorder. 

10. In simple terms, such order and disorder are produced by Vibration, Heat and Wear that co-exist in any system creating the interdependent play of motion, which is the central theme of creation, maintenance, renewal and death. This provides the self organizing principle of any system that self organize itself into various states. Though Vibration, Heat and Wear are simply different manifestations of the same emergent behavior we tend to see and examine them separately, which we need not do at all.

Making it Useful: (Unity in Diversity)

How useful are these concepts of Nature illustrated through the story?

1. It unifies the whole of engineering

2. It describes the fundamental properties of any system. It would be true for any system — living or non-living, machines or industrial or management systems.

3. It helps us to create or design new self organizing systems

4. It helps us to maintain systems and prolong the usefulness of any system for a long time.

5. Design, Operation and Maintenance do not exist independently. They are simply different perspectives of the same issue and are to to be tackled simultaneously.

6. It helps us to change the output of a system by changing the relationships (without redesigning systems) to something more favorable.

7. Repeated and frequent self destruction of a system would indicate that the system is no longer useful for its purpose.


1. Trans-disciplinary and not multi-disciplinary approach is needed to create, operate and maintain systems.

2. Designers, Operation Personnel, Maintenance Personnel, Marketers, Business Managers and Leaders, Artists, Teachers etc can all gain from this understanding & insight.

3. In short, this is the fundamental story of life as we know it.

I dedicate this blog post to my Guru Mr. Tim Henry, the former Chairman of WM Engineering, a consulting wing of the University of Manchester, U.K.


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