Systems Thinking: The Battle for the Management Mind

Monday, August 17, 2009 by Tripp Babbitt

Walk around any service business today and you will see some of the oldest practices of management in place. The problem is most don’t recognize the practice or the original thinking that went into it. They have become part of our culture and being. Scientific management has been the mainstay of U.S. business since 1911 (or before) when Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote "The Principles of Scientific Management." A breakthrough in its time, Taylor brought us the functional separation of work, standardized tasks and "the one best way" to do any task (best practice). These concepts were all breakthroughs in their time and still drive our management thinking today.

But is that a good thing? Well, for the most part one would have to say "no." The work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming helped to change this philosophy in post-WWII Japan. Dr. Deming’s quality message was rejected in the United States after WWII mostly because international countries had been decimated by the war, and all turned to the U.S. to buy their goods and services. General MacArthur’s invitation to Dr. Deming to help rebuild Japan was accepted and so were the seeds of the "Japanese Industrial Miracle." The productivity mindset created by scientific management worked well for many years until better thinking prevailed. The U.S. has never recaptured what has been lost in the manufacturing arena. The U.S. has blamed everything from low wages, unions, health care and an assortment of other issues for their problems in manufacturing.

Anyone have a tool? A label? Dr. Deming had a profound impact on the Japanese thinking and upon his return to the United States was heralded as a management guru. His every word was listened to and every business wanted to know how to get the "magic" that the Japanese had "found." But what everyone wanted was magic, something of "pixie dust from Disney World." The focus was on quality circles, JIT (Just-in-Time Manufacturing), Pareto charts, SPC (Statistical Process Control), etc., that were sold as TQM or Total Quality Management. Dr. Deming never called it TQM himself,  The labels were all born from consulting firms in the U.S. The same problem appeared later with "Lean" label and Taiichi Ohno’s teachings. Ohno never called it "Lean." The movements (TQM, Six Sigma and Lean) have fallen victim to the tools rather than the thinking. Additionally, it seems that we also became more enamored with what Deming said, rather than advancing the thinking on the trail he and Ohno blazed for us.

So what is wrong with the tools? Nothing, and many of the tools developed for manufacturing have worked well, but what has been missing is the thinking that went into the tools. Someone invented them because they had a need. It seems that our collective brains have shut down, and new breakthroughs and tools have failed to be invented. The thinking never took hold. People still running around with Lean, Six Sigma and TQM tools looking for anything closely resembling a nail for the hammers they wield.

New (systems) thinking in service. Many of the tools in manufacturing have been used in service industry at great cost. John Seddon has pointed out in his book Freedom from Command and Control that the manufacturing tools do not work very well for service. He cites the "variety of demand" in service as being one of the differentiators. But Mr. Seddon does not stop there. He points out that the problem is a fundamental thinking problem born from the forementioned scientific management theory of Frederick Winslow Taylor. In essence, what Mr. Seddon references as command and control thinking (Taylorism) he proposes almost the opposite to do in the design and management of work for service organizations.

The battleground.  The mind of those that run or influence how organizations are run will be the battleground to change thinking.  Today’s economy brings up a lot of questions around how we have managed or mismanaged organizations.  Will the timing be better for people to look at the paradigms that make up their thinking?  Will those that are curious be able to look at the management paradoxes that are presented by the concepts of Deming, Ohno and Seddon?  Economic prosperity or starvation will likely be the deciding factor.  Those believing we aren’t on a decline in service and manufacturing will want the status quo and those that believe we have been on a decline for some time will look for change.  What will prevail in the management mind?  Time will tell.

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Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from "Understanding Your Organization as a System" and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at or LinkedIn at


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