Using a system to understand and lead an organization is not a new idea – it is at least 2,500 years old. According to Mo-Tze (a.k.a. Miscius) a Chinese philosopher around 500 B.C.E.
Whoever pursues a business in this world must have a system. A business which has attained success without a system does not exist. From ministers and generals down to the hundreds of craftsmen, every one of them has a system. The craftsmen employ the ruler to make a square and the compass to make a circle. All of them, both skilled and unskilled, use this system. The skilled may at times accomplish a circle and a square by their own dexterity. But with a system, even the unskilled may achieve the same result, though dexterity they have none. Hence, every craftsman possesses a system as a model. Now, if we govern the empire, or a large state, without a system as a model, are we not even less intelligent than a common craftsman? (Wu, 1928).
Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge
Understanding the organization as a system is one of four main components of Deming’s system of profound knowledge. Deming (1994) identifies three concepts key to understanding the organization as a system.
- Interdependency – systems are composed of interdependent components that require communication, cooperation, and coordination.
- Obligation of a component – while the system is composed of individual components, the purpose of each component is to maximize the overall performance of the system vs. the performance of the individual component.
- Basis for negotiation – understanding the interdependency and obligations of the system components provides a basis for negotiation among the key stakeholders of the system including various departments and divisions in the organization, suppliers and partners, customers, so on and so forth.
These three concepts, when combined with systems thinking, can provide deep insights into the organization or what Deming called, “profound knowledge.”
Over the last 50+ years there have been a wide variety of perspectives on the organization system put forth from a variety of contributors including W. Edwards Deming’s production system, Michael Porter’s value chain, Jay Forrester’s dynamic systems, Russell Ackoff’s organization systems, and performance excellence models such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Criteria for Performance Excellence and the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM). The organization system proposed here integrates many of the ideas and concepts from the previous models into a high-level framework. There are a wide variety of systems in every organization from customer service to strategy development to training. We have found that it is often useful to organize the systems into three main categories of strategic leadership, execution excellence, and organizational learning and innovation. Strategic Leadership systems are those that provide guidance and resources to the other systems. Systems in the strategic leadership category include leadership, strategy development and deployment, governance, environmental and social responsibility systems. Execution Excellence systems are those systems that make up the value chain of the organization from suppliers and partners to operations to customers. Organizational Learning and Innovation systems include workforce development and engagement along with measurement and analysis of the organization to enhance continuous learning and innovation processes. Understanding the organization system changes the way leaders think about their organization and how it operates.
Systems thinking, as popularized by Peter Senge in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline, focuses on the dynamic flows of inter-connected activities and information. It is one thing to think about individual exchanges between the interdependent components in a system and quite another to understand how the “flows” of energy, information, etc. “play out” over time in a dynamic system. In dynamic systems, the distance between cause and effect is often separated in both “time” and “space.” In organizations, the delay between action and result can be months or even years. This makes it difficult for leaders to learn from experience what worked and didn’t work.
Humans learn best when the feedback (the result of the action) is immediate or soon after the action. When the delay is months, it is difficult to learn from the feedback and, in fact, it is often difficult to even make accurate connections between the results and the actions. This “lag” or distance in time and space between cause and effect is a fundamental dilemma with strategy and organization outcomes. The interaction and interdependence of the system components mean that the results may show up in a system component far “downstream” of the initial action. This delay between action and result makes it difficult to transition from the endless reacting to symptoms and “fighting fires” toward identifying and fixing root causes and “preventing fires.” The first step to remedy this is to develop an explicit description of the organization system.
Leader as Architect of Organization Systems
Developing an explicit description of the organization system is best done as a group exercise with the executive team. Then this initial description can be refined over several iterations with input from all levels of the organization. Some leaders might be tempted to delegate such a task. That is a bad idea! CEO’s who led successful transformations to achieve high performance were personally involved and focused on systems. They were motivated to work with systems and processes which helped them lead the redesign the organizational systems to achieve results across a comprehensive scorecard (Larson, et al., 2012). The challenge is to understand the nature of the system when the nature of the individual components vary widely.
An explicit system helps the organization architect work on the “pieces and parts” of the organization so that they align with the larger system and don’t create additional unintended outcomes and consequences. As Eliel Saarinen proposed,
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.
To design the various organization systems so that they align with the overall organization and strategy, you must first make the overall organization system explicit to everyone involved.
Enjoy the Journey
Deming, W. E. (1994). The new economics: For industry, government, education (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study (MIT CAES).
Larson, M., Latham, J. R., Appleby, C. A., & Harshman, C. L. (2012). CEO attitudes and motivations: Are they different for high performing organizations? Quality Management Journal, 19(4), 15. | Download
Wu, Kuo-Cheng. (1928). Ancient Chinese political theories. Shanghai, China: The Commercial Press, Limited.