Dr. Russel L. Ackoff On Systems Thinking

How f-lawed is your organization?

The Internet and LinkedIn are beautiful inventions. Gene Bellinger invited me to watch the YouTube video presentation of Russel Ackoff on Systems Thinking. Awesome presentation about doing the right things instead of doing things right!

Some time ago I wrote a blog on Systems Thinking. In this blog I asked your attention for a presentation of John Seddon. John Seddon practices Systems Thinking by improving organizational performance from the perspective of increasing the organizations' value in the view of the customer.

Russel Ackoff takes a scientific approach to System Thinking, translating the extensive and very complicated theory in simple principles. In this presentation, which dates from 1994 (!) from a seminar on Learning & Legacy of Dr. W. Edwards Deming Ackoff is the last keynote speaker, closing the seminar.

Though watching the 12 minute video yourself is well worth your trouble, I will summarize some of my highlights here.

The outstanding example of Quality Improvement for Ackoff is what Winnie the Pooh calls a good thing. Surveys claim that 67% of the managers who authorized a quality improvement program are not satisfied with the results. Those programs are therefore failures. A program should meet and exceed the consumers and customers expectations. Ackoff poses the hypothesis that the cause of these failures lies in not reasoning from a Systems Thinking perspective:

  1. Systems Thinking means understanding that the whole of parts can have a different behavior and other properties than the sum of the parts themselves.
  2. Each part is dependent on the rest of the parts.

The implications of these 2 rules are severe, leading to 3 simple principles:

  1. The properties of the whole system are not the sum of all individual properties, but are complete new properties.
    Hence, you cannot improve the whole system by only improving a part.
  2. The practice of improving defects is completely wrong.
    You must direct improvement on improving your requirements implementation, not on only removing the defect of 1 part.
  3. Continuous improvement is not nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Your goals should be leap-frogging by using all creativity you can find.
    To quote the late Peter Drucker:

    Quality Improvement is about doing the right things, not about doing things right.

    Quality Improvement is about enhancing the value from a consumer and customer perspective, and thus about effectiveness, and not about efficiency.
    The difference between effectiveness and efficiency is the same difference that you have between wisdom and knowledge. We need far more wisdom. We suffer from too much knowledge.

To summarize this I quote the famous last words of dr. Ackoff from this lecture:

Until managers take into account the systemic nature of their organizations most of their efforts to improve their performance are doomed to failure.

In my opinion the message of dr. Russel L. Ackoff is clear. And how about you: Today, are you doing the right things?


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