Systems Thinking Theory and Practice

Systems Practice Now!

By Kevin Mueller,

Sometimes I think “we have learnt so much, yet we apply so little of it”.

Over centuries we have built systems and practices that have become so ingrained in our culture it seems almost impossible to change. We are not entirely resistent to change, we are still here after all, but change remains hard.

In his book “The Fifth Discipline” Peter M. Senge quotes a letter he had received in 1990 from Dr. Edwards Deming (then almost 90). The thing about rewards is one of those problems we struggle to get rid of, in all walks of life:

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers—a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars—and on up through university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.

In his book, Senge maps Deming’s thinking to his own theory of the five disciplines: “understanding a system,”“theory of knowledge” (the importance of mental models), and “psychology,” especially “intrinsic motivation” (the importance of personal vision and genuine aspiration). Senge’s five disciplines being: Personal mastery, shared vision, mental models, dialogue, systems thinking. Senge added another quote by Deming, one I would like to see up on the walls of every school:

We will never transform the prevailing system of management without transforming our prevailing system of education. They are the same system.