In the decade immediately following WWII leaders in the social and physical scientific communities around the world began to understand the phenomena of life and in new ways; as complex, networked, order-generating, self-organising systems. Overturning the Newtonian mechanistic worldview of the universe as a clockwork mechanism, this Systems View of Life began a revolution that reversed our understanding of countless phenomena, from the cosmos to human cognition. Most critically, the systems view confronted our mechanistic assumptions, that the world could be operated as a machine.
Into this new, complex systems view of the world entered Edwards Deming and a revolutionary view of quality and the sources of quality. Deming’s 14 Key Principles for Management confronted the established mechanistic methods for quality in manufacturing. Take for instance #14: Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job. Or #9: Break down barriers between departments. Or the most revolutionary, #8: Drive Out Fear.
One can see Deming’s principles as arising within the context of the grand shift from understanding the cosmos as a great clockwork mechanism, to seeing the world as living networks, through which the quality of relationships, mediated by shared purpose and identity, fed by information from all directions, generates quality outcomes (or their lack). This is a revolutionary view demanding the remaking of siloed hierarchies, distributing power, and radical transparency.
The revolution stalled
Over the decades following Deming and his colleagues’ work in Japan, and ultimately the world, major improvements in quality were achieved. Focusing on relationships and information in a context of deeply shared purpose, quality became everyone’s work. Hierarchies were challenged. Power was devolved to the shop floor. Yet slowly, subtly and imperceptibly the machine-based culture of organisational control engaged the forces of change and turned them back into themselves. The culture of the mechanistic world churned out new rules, regulations, measurements and metrics. It generated new institutions to regulate other institutions; it created new silos through the professionalisation of quality functions. Quality was turned into a performance measure, not a way of life. Deming’s principles said in #3, Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality and in #9, Break down barriers between departments. But we have done the opposite. Culture eats strategy. The revolution has been stalled.
Reigniting the revolution
We believe it is time to reignite the spirit of revolution in quality. We are at an inflection point, and our mechanistic approaches, operating at their limits, mostly produces unintended outcomes of the wrong kind; safety failures, suspect ethics, blocked innovation, acceleration of metrics in a deficit culture, in which we look for what went wrong and who is to blame. Rather than driving out fear we’re driving it deeper.
We believe another way is possible. We believe that organisations are living systems. We believe that working with the dynamics of life, rather than against them, offers real possibilities for changing the cultural landscape of our organisations and changing our understanding of the source of quality.
What’s required is a new understanding of the science of living systems and their application to our social organisations. Like most revolutions, we begin with a conversation about questions that matter with people who believe in what’s possible. People who care.
We take as our inspiration the Macy Conferences. These were multi-day meetings of an informal brilliant group of scientists and social scientists exploring the implications of complex systems for improving the state of mankind post WWII. They were, or became friends. The systems view of the world we have now had its origins there. They developed two strands of theory; cybernetics, or the understanding of machines as complex systems, and living systems theory, the understanding of life as self-organising systems. The members of the Macy Conferences went on to develop a new view of neuro-biology and cognition; to create the first digital computers; to develop information theory that enabled the development of the internet and world wide web, and much more. Their informal but focused sessions together unleashed a range of innovation that are part of our life today.
We believe it’s time to start the conversation again.