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Circular vs. Linear - We look at systems the wrong way


Andy Bassett

Im afraid all this stuff about systems drives me a little crazy. Either i read too much or too little into it.

Peter Senge pushed me over the edge i am afraid. I read the complete book and never derived an ounce of use from it (i know, Im a Philistine).

My favourite party trick whenever somebody start to expound about Peter Senge is too ask 'Ahh very interesting, can you remember exactly what the fifth discipline is...' and it seems that i am not the only Philistine.

Anybody want to try and sell Peter Senge to me.

Andy B

Alan Cotterell

I think the most uncomforting thing about systems thinking is our inability to see the big picture. If you have a look at some of Escher's drawings, you will see perpetual motion, water flowing continually downhill in circles, and monks walking continually uphill in circles. We cannot concentrate on two parts of the picture at once, and I suggest the same applies to management systems. When thinking about quality we tend to follow a linear process without recognising the concurrent requirements of the other parts of the system (safety, environment, security) and the tradeoffs which must occur. It helps to be able to think laterally, and sometimes take a big step backwards.

Kevin Mader

One of THE Original Covers!
Staff member
Hello Allan,

For me, anyway, Systems Thinking is the Big Picture. Many subsystems make up the 'big picture' and viewing them independently is the problem under linear thinking. The systems are interrelated, dependent on each other. Correlations exist, and sometimes not directly, but influencing one has impact on another or others. This speaks to your point of having a concurrent approach to system optimization. Working to optimize the Big Picture requires careful understanding and manipulation of multiple subsystems. Knowledge of the System (Big Picture) is key and having the correct Theory. This is a difficult objective, and why, IMHO, many organizations abandon this theory. It takes too much work and results aren't instant. Many organizations focus on the Short Term successes.

Linear thinking leads to suboptimization of subsystems. It lacks the Big Picture understanding required for organizational success. As Deming is careful to point out, precise optimization is not necessary nor desireable. In short, perfection isn't necessary to achieve good organizational success, nor profitable.




Wait a second. You've forgotten that there's more than two dimensions in this equation.
The interrelationship between the organization, shareholders, customer and community is an on-going process, and time should be factored in. Future profits, promising future products for the customer, or future benefits for the community might be causes for short term loss of optimization.
That's one of the reasons behind communities giving tax breaks to large corporations.
Looking to the future,


Captain Nice
Staff member
Originally posted by Alan Cotterell:

I think the most uncomforting thing about systems thinking is our inability to see the big picture.
I emphatically disagree. Quite the contrary - systems thinking allows one to see the 'big picture'.


Captain Nice
Staff member
GM refused air bags for years citing cost while customers clamored for air bags. Yes - GM did eventually see that they were losing market share because people were increasingly shopping with safety in mind. My opinion is it should not have taken GM's customers crying for air bags for them to embrace them. GM is no company to talk about customer satisfaction - it talks bottom line.

I don't have a problem with a company trying to please customers - to do what a customer requests. What comes into play is real life.

But - how far do you go? If I sell to 10,000 companies and one little guy who commands a whopping 0.5% of my business wants me to change something, should I do it? Let's say they request QS-9000 registration. Pretty expensive if only that customer wants it.

Intel told the automotive folks to go smoke one because they had no intention of doing the QS-9000 dance. Motorola said OK - and they also used their QS-9000 project to take a serious, focused look at their quality (business) systems. Harley-Davidson did the ISO dance, after rejecting it for a number of years, only because Germany sent them a letter telling them they could no longer sell their motorcycles in Germany without being ISO9001 registered.

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