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?

5 thoughts 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.

  2. Hi Karl,

    It’s my take on the points that Ackoff is making about taking a SYSTEMIC versus a LOCALIZED approach to pursuing CI/OpEx should NOT be analyzed independent of one another. Why? Because the only MEANINGFUL CONTEXT is to be found in the INTEGRATED and INTEGRATIVE nature of those points. For example, analyzing point #8 without taking into consideration point #9 can be rather misleading and/or disorienting. Here’s why…

    Naturally, any approach to the practice of CI/OpEx requires taking action at some level. What separates truly SUSTAINABLE CI/OpEx capabilities (in some programmatic form) from those that are not SUSTAINABLE is the degree to which they are focused on making LOCALIZED improvements (i.e., where the impact of the action(s) taken has little to no or even a detrimental impact on the overall [desired/needed] performance of the SYSTEM) versus SYSTEMIC improvements (i.e., where the action(s) taken have a direct impact on the overall [desired/needed] performance of the SYSTEM).

    In this regard, what Ackoff says about any CI/OpEx program being oriented toward pursuing LOCALIZED versus SYSTEMIC improvements does NOT preclude taking any particular action(s). Rather, it only precludes taking any action(s) WITHOUT consideration for its impact on the performance of the overall SYSTEM. In addition, establishing a CONTEXT (i.e., waste elimination, variation reduction, bottleneck elimination, etc.) that’s limited to WHAT IS NOT WANTED versus WHAT IS WANTED precludes the ability to adapt the OVERALL SYSTEM – including all of its constituent elements (i.e., people, processes, technologies, products/services, strategies, values, policies/procedures/protocols, etc.) – toward maximizing its VALUE ADDING CAPABILITIES. And that means being RESPONSE-ABLE when it comes to meeting the needs/demands of the targeted CUSTOMERS and the SOCIETIES in which the organization is operating.

    [Note: Sometimes – maybe more often than purists are willing to accept/acknowledge – making a SYSTEMIC improvement in the ability of the overall SYSTEM to meet the growing demand for its product/service may involve making certain operations subservient to a bottleneck operation; and in so doing creating what might be considered as undesirable “waste” in form of higher volumes of WIP inventories. Under these circumstances, the critical question(s) need to be focused on what the trade-offs happen to be and whether they make the most sense in the context of the overall SYSTEM’s performance. As we hope would be the case under the TOC approach to resolving bottlenecks, a “total/systemic cost” of doing so which exceeds the return/value to be realized will warrant a different approach to dealing with that particular bottleneck issue.]

    1. Hi Jay,

      Thank you for sharing this content in the first place and for your additional clarity.

      It seems like we are in agreement that it is necessary to take a whole system perspective when looking for opportunities to improve an organisation. Just looking at the performance of one aspect of an organisation without an appropriate focusing mechanism could lead to undesirable effects in the context of the whole.

      Whether to ‘direct attention at what we do want’ or ‘direct attention at what we don’t want’ is an interesting question worth exploring.

      Here are my thoughts …

      The benefit of directing attention at what we do want provides a strategic view of the system. The benefit of directing attention at what we don’t want provides an operational view of the system. We need both a strategic and operational view to increase performance in any system.

      Is it possible to hold both views and, if so, how?

      I believe it is, and that it requires a particular style of leadership. A style of leadership that articulates the vision (what we do want) and then creates a space for people to work out what stops the vision from existing in reality and allows people to remove any impediment (what we don’t want). Whether you create the space or work within it is a function of your ability to handle complexity. That ability to handle complexity is different for everyone and, to make it a little more challenging, is constantly evolving (or devolving) in each of us.

      If we want everyone to be involved in improving an organisation, and I suggest we do if we want all people to be response able, then we must do both. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey describe this as an “An Everyone Culture” in their book of the same name.

      1. Hi Karl,

        Great reply!!! I’m in complete agreement with your perspective. And I suspect that Ackoff would be too. I’ll check out the Kegan / Lahey book.

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