The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Deming 101: Understanding Systems


In this segment of Ian Bradbury’s talk at the 2013 W. Edwards Deming Institute conference he looks at how your view of the system effects what solutions seem reasonable. If you only view part of the system the solutions you come to can often have negative consequences.

And often those consequences are pushed off in time so that it can be very difficult to understand the causes of the consequences. Taking the time to train yourself to think about the larger systems that are in play and what impacts decisions may have on those larger systems will help you make better decisions.

How it is that you view the system can significantly impact your behavior. And [your view] can cause you to look at the system very differently, [for example] if I want to have sustainable fishing how do I need to interact with the system?

The initial results of actions taken may not have the largest impact – such as the example in Ian’s presentation where interaction affects create a much larger impact over the long term than the initial results. So that while there is a slight move in the beneficial direction at first once the system absorbs the change and rebalances the long term result is a negative one.

Evidence based thinking isn’t as easy as just looking at the results. We must have knowledge of the system that provides an ability to understand the results and comprehend that short term results may be misleading. As Dr. Deming said, “there is no substitute for knowledge” (chapter 6 of The Essential Deming provides more details on this thought).

Related: Improving Problem SolvingThe Theory of Knowledge and the PDSA Improvement and Learning CycleExperience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryDouble Loop Learning Presentation by Benjamin MitchellThe Art of Discovery

Categorised as: management systems, systems thinking


  1. A great short video explaining the dramatic changes to the Yellowstone ecosystem with the re-introduction of wolves. Even the rivers changed.

  2. “By taking a systems view it is possible to address not just individual symptoms as they appear but to work on reducing the conditions that lead to problems…”

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