Systems Thinking – Deming and Knowledge Worker Management

When we think of Systems Thinking, most of us think of Peter Senge and his classic book The Fifth Discipline. But the first instance of Systems Thinking that I’ve seen recorded is by W. Edwards Deming. He used “Systems Thinking” in the model of production he first published in the 1950’s at an international conference at Mt. Hakone in Japan.

Deming serves as a nice point/counterpoint with the standard American management system and it’s founder Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor believed in open loop process thinking. E.g. You have a job, you have a series of tasks, execute them step by step. Deming is a proponent of closed loop system thinking. In closed loop system thinking the feedback from the system provides opportunity to learn and improve. It’s been clearly shown that in product development, when managed by Taylor’s system, we see counter productive activities and low productivity. When we have Deming’s, we have nothing but good.

It’s probably not surprising if you think about it. Taylor’s fist hand experience was in a labor machine shop. Deming’s first hand experience was as a researcher in an agriculture department and he had a close working relationship and was mentored by the famous researcher Walter Shewhart of Bell Laboratories.

So, if we’re looking for a management system that is appropriately applied to the knowledge workers in product development, whose do you think would be more appropriate? The one from a man with first hand experience in a machine shop or the one with first hand experience as one of us…as a knowledge worker.


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