Harmony or cacophony

One more time…what is a system?

In the wonderful YouTube clip called ‘If Russ Ackoff had given a TED talk’ (from way back in 1994), we get a really clear explanation about what a system is and, more importantly, why this matters!

A recap from W. Edwards Deming:

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim [purpose] of the system.”

“If the various components of an organisation are all optimised, the organisation will not be. If the whole is optimised, the components will not be.”

Dr Deming used to use the example of an orchestra to illustrate this point.


  • A fine orchestra (the system) is highly interdependent;
  • The musicians (the components) are not there to stand out to the listener in a ‘look at me and what I can do’ manner…can you imagine the outcome of performance incentives – each musician being rewarded for playing faster and louder than the others! Such incentives are the source of cacophony that destroys value;
  • The musicians are there to support each other, to achieve the harmony that comes from the interaction of their specialised instruments adhering to the same fundamental rhythm, towards the same aim;
  • They are usually not ‘the best’ players in the country. They work as a team under the leadership of the conductor.

Another way of looking at this is that someone focused on the ‘efficiency’ of the orchestra would find them very inefficient – some of them are just sitting there waiting, tapping their feet! If the efficiency specialist would have their way, all the musicians would be playing all their instruments all the time!

Note that Deming considered a business to be even more interdependent than an orchestra and that, without real teamwork across the components, chaos is rampant.

It has been said that command-and-control companies get ordinary results after extensively searching, and fighting, for the limited supply of extra-ordinary people (what was coined as ‘the war for talent’ by McKinsey) whilst the likes of Toyota (and other ‘Systems thinking’ organisations) consistently obtain extraordinary results from ordinary people.

The point is that it is about optimising the system, not its components…and, to do this, we need to understand the obstacles that our current management system puts in the way and replace them with something better!

7 thoughts on “Harmony or cacophony

  1. […] How the hell does the worker know if it’s ‘absolutely necessary’? What does that even mean? Toyota want the worker to pull it even if they are simply uncertain about something…so that this uncertainty can be identified, understood and removed – it’s not the workers fault if they aren’t sure about something! It’s the system. […]


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