In an earlier post, Jay Bistack commented about the work of Dr. Russell Ackoff.  It is worthy of its own discussion so I have moved it here.

It has to do with the notion of being able to optimise the parts in order to get optimised performance of the whole.

Here’s what Dr. Ackoff has to say about it in his would be TED Talk video from 1994 …

Jay summarised the key points for us:

  1. A system as a whole, cannot be divided into independent parts;
  2. The essential or defining properties of any system are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have;
  3. Whenever a system is taken apart, it loses its essential properties;
  4. A system is not the sum of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions… [Note: Optimizing the performance of each part is not the same as optimizing the interactions between the parts.];
  5. Any system-of-improvement that’s directed at improving the performance of parts taken separately/individually, you can be absolutely sure that the performance of the whole/system will not be improved;
  6. The performance of a system depends on how the parts fit together, not how they perform separately;
  7. When it comes to making improvements… when you get rid of something you don’t want (e.g., defects), you don’t necessarily get what you do want/need;
  8. Finding deficiencies and getting rid of them, is not a way of improving the performance of a system;
  9. An improvement program must be direct at what you want/need, not at what you don’t want/need;
  10. Determining what you want requires redesigning the system – for the right now, not for the future – and asking yourself… “If you could do anything you wanted/needed to do right now, what would that be?”
  11. Continuous improvement (i.e., Kaizen) is not nearly as important as discontinuous improvement (i.e. Kaikaku). Creativity/innovation results in a discontinuity.  A creative act breaks with the chain (of thinking and behaving) that has come before it.
  12. One never becomes a leader by continuous improvement alone, you only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you.

I was reading this summary and nodding my head in agreement until I got to number 8.  I can accept what Dr. Ackoff says in that simply finding deficiencies in a system and getting rid of them won’t improve the whole system … UNLESS those deficiencies are at a critical point within the system. It seems that Dr. Ackoff may not have believed that systems have a leverage point.

Should we focus on improving the parts or focus on improving the whole?  Can we move the whole by focusing on just one part?

I wonder what Archimedes would have said?

One thought on “Focus on improving the parts or focus on improving the whole?

  1. Improve the parts or focus on improving the whole? Why not focus on the part that will improve the whole?

    A systems view is needed to firstly figure out which part to focus on. And then to understand the effect that any improvement to that part will have on the whole system, so you can mitigate any unwanted side-effects.

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