Respect for People in Light of Systems Thinking:


Respect for People is one of the two pillars in the Toyota Way and in today’s post I will be looking at Respect for People in the light of ideas from the late great Systems Thinker, Russell Ackoff. This post is inspired by Ackoff’s teachings.

Back in the old days (Renaissance period onwards – 1400’s) humans knew little and thought that they knew everything. There was a lot of stress on “Analysis” and “cause and effect” thinking. The thinking behind “Analysis” is that one learns a phenomenon by taking things apart. This was seen as the only way to understand the universe – by breaking down things and studying each part. This fostered the idea of cause and effect thinking. Every relationship was seen as a cause and an effect, in a linear fashion. In Ackoff’s words, this led to interesting doctrines;

The commitment to cause-and-effect thinking led to … if we want to explain a phenomenon, all we have to do is find its cause. To further explain that cause, we simply treat it as an effect and find its cause. But is there any end to this causal regression? If the universe can be completely understood, there had to be a first cause—and this was the official doctrine as to why God exists. God is the only thing in the universe that could not be explained because God was the first cause.

This type of linear thinking led us to thinking of the world as a clockwork machine. The Industrial Revolution introduced the machine age where work could be mechanized. Work was seen in a reductionist viewpoint as a simple transformation of matter through energy. Frederick Taylor, proponent of Scientific Management, introduced the ideas of improving efficiency through principles of Industrial Engineering. Work could now be broken down into basic elements – analysis, and each element can be focused on to improve it. The modern factory consisted of machines and humans engaged in these basic tasks in a clockwork fashion. In Ackoff’s words;

The machines and people were then aggregated into a network of elementary tasks dedicated to the production of a product—the modern factory. In the process of mechanizing work, however, we made people behave as though they were machines. We dehumanized work.

This goes against the idea of Respect for Humanity. Toyota teaches that its production system is a Thinking Production System, and that their operators are not just a pair of hands.

Ackoff concludes that the idea of free will, introduction of the Uncertainty principle and Systems Thinking launched the Systems Age in the first half of Twentieth Century. In Systems Thinking, the approach of “Synthesis” was introduced. “Synthesis” uses the opposite approach to “Analysis”.” Synthesis” is the idea of putting things together to understand the system. In Ackoff’s words;

The first step of synthesis is to determine the larger system of which the system to be explained is a part. The second step is to try to understand the larger system as a whole. The third step is to disaggregate the understanding of the whole into an understanding of the part by identifying its role or function in the containing system.

If Analysis leads to Knowledge, Synthesis leads to Understanding! However, this also meant that we may never be able to understand the whole universe. The concept of Synthesis forces us to look at the impact of the environment and each factor and how they interact with each other. This was missing in Analysis. This idea led to the understanding that an organization is not a simple mechanistic clockwork where people are mere forms of “living machinery”. An organization in the light of Systems Thinking becomes a Social Technical system. Ackoff advises us;

Most managers are still acting as though the corporation is a mechanism or an organism, not a social system. Although we don’t normally treat machines as organisms, one legacy from the Machine Age is that we have a tendency to treat organisms as machines, and even social systems as machines. That has a very limited usefulness, but it is not nearly as useful as looking at a social system as a social system.

This provides further insight into the concept of Respect for People in my opinion. Respect for People is not thinking in terms of the Machine Age. It is about looking at the social system and seeing workers as people who can think and come up with better ways of doing things, and where the system gains from their input.

Final Words:

I encourage the readers to read or watch anything that is available from Russell Ackoff. I will finish off with a “Zen” story from Japan that talks about the harmony of the whole;

There’s a story about the famous rock garden at Ryōanji temple. The story goes that when the garden was finished, the designer showed it to the priest and asked him what he thought.

The priest was delighted. “It’s magnificent!” he said. “Especially that rock there!”

The garden designer immediately removed the rock. For him, the harmony of the whole was paramount.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Value of Silence.


2 thoughts on “Respect for People in Light of Systems Thinking:

  1. I think you totally misunderstand Ackoff and what systems thinking is. The first construct of systems thinking is that systems do not exist!


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