Quality Transformation: It’s still the system

David reflects on the power of systems thinking in organizational life and customer satisfaction, both inside and outside the organization.

After my recent extended illness, I was surprisingly shocked to reemerge into organizational life in its broadest terms. Frequently, I engaged in the organizational lives of my students, my friends, my colleagues, and my own workplace. Everywhere I looked, I found

  • unhappy customers who, after making frustrating attempts to obtain decent products or service, simply walked away because of their dissatisfaction;
  • organizational leaders who were disappointed in the performance of the people who worked for them;
  • workers who felt overwhelmed with unclear goals to achieve and tasks to perform with unreasonable expectations and deadlines, no clear processes to follow, and no resources to help them;
  • colleagues in different parts of organizations who were at odds with one another because of competitive and seemingly divergent goals, competition to obtain scarce resources, and a need to make their colleagues look bad so they wouldn’t be the one to get fired.
  • managers who were frustrated by the lack of good ideas;
  • employees at middle and lower organizational levels who had shut down after years of trying to get a good idea approved only to have it rejected for no rational reason.

My shock was not that this situation was new. It was that it is the same story that Dr. Deming told Western management beginning in the 1980s, more than 30 years ago. He even told management how to fix it. One of the fundamental things he advocated and wrote about was to have an “appreciation for a system” (The New Economics, Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 1994).

In an attempt to further Dr. Deming’s explanation and proposal, Dr. Peter Senge used an isosceles triangle to describe a typical organization with the workers at the base and the boss at the top. He explained that the model came from the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church where the leader was considered all-powerful. Dr. Senge drew horizontal lines across the triangle to depict the various levels of power from all- to no-power.

Pat Dolan, another well-known organizational consultant, took Senge’s illustration further, using Frederick Taylor’s idea of scientific management to draw vertical lines within the triangle between disciplines such as engineering, production, accounting, and marketing and various other department within any organization. Dolan and others have then shown the organization as a matrix of boxes or cells in which each of the various employees of an organization must reside. Communications and transactions outside an employee’s own cell are difficult. This is one way to explain the phenomena I described at the beginning of this piece.

I don’t believe most managers, or anyone else for that matter, consciously intend for each employee in an organization to be in their very own box or cell, but we tend to default into those old theories of hierarchy and specialization that often result in the creation of those boxes. Systems theory tells us, among other things, that organizational performance in its broadest perspective comes much more from the transactions among the various players than from individual performance from someone inside a box or cell. Dr. Deming helped us further understand that we can and should think of those transactions as between customer and supplier no matter whether they involve the actual customer or consumer of the product or service we provide them or the organization’s internal employees and external partners that help us serve our ultimate customers.

I believe that we can improve all those dysfunctional situations I described at the beginning of this piece by helping our organizations behave like living systems instead of hierarchical machines. I believe we can do that by better serving our internal and external customers. I have two favorite questions that can begin a rich conversation to serve that end. When I interact with another partner in our organization or with an external partner who helps us serve our customer I like to ask:

  1. Where did you come from? I ask them to start the story from when they were a child. I am trying to encourage them to tell me what has influenced who they are and how they behave in their current position by taking a deep look back. This first question encourages a better, common understanding of who we are in the organization and provides a simple way to begin to break down those unconscious cells we all find ourselves in.
  2. How can I better serve you? Customer/supplier relationships are always two-way streets. I can better supply anyone with whom I interact and some who I don’t even know I interact with. Think of all the people who review and/or are influenced by your work even if you do not directly interact with them.

Obviously, I can then change my behavior, as a result of the conversation, in a way that continually improves the performance of the organization and, at the same time, helps both of us break down those cell walls, at least a little bit.

As always, I treasure your comments, suggestions, and questions.

David Schwinn

David Schwinn


  • Good article, but if these ideas are not driven from the top down in an organization how will your initial concerns be addressed. There has to be accountability and someone asking the why question until the problem is fixed. Someone has to care and be willing to fix the concern.

  • You’re absolutely right, Rick. Unless management is willing to look at the system and train employees to build quality into processes, there can be no transformation. Thanks for reading, and even more, for responding.