To Achieve Success Focus on Improving the System Not On Individual Performance

A company could put a top man at every position and be swallowed by a competitor with people only half as good, but who are working together.

W. Edwards Deming in his last interview: ‘Management Today Does Not Know What Its Job Is.

This quote is a wonderful view of Deming’s focus on the organization as a system versus the focus on individuals that is so common today. The annual performance appraisal process and individual bonuses (including massive amounts of money given to senior executives) are tangible examples of the individual focus in so many organizations today.

Creating a management system that focuses on long term continual improvement is much more difficult than repeating nice quotes though – unfortunately.

The related links below provide some ideas. Basically though all of Deming’s work is focused on how you create an organization that is successful and is helping provide people opportunities to create as much value as possible.

From our previous post: Managing the Organization as a System

It is fairly easy to appreciate that optimizing components within a system can easily create problems for the overall system. But it is hard to accept that we have to manage the entire organization in a coordinated way instead of just assigning responsibility for certain areas to executives and holding them accountable for optimizing their areas.

Related: A Bad System Will Beat a Good Person Every TimeA Good Management System is Robust and Continually ImprovingHow to Improve Your Management SystemThe Idea of Performance Rating to Capture Merit is AlluringQuality is Made in the Board Room

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7 Responses

  1. Robert Crow says:

    I have an exercise I use with groups that demonstrates this fact. You need a ball, pair of socks rolled up in a ball, etc. Explain to the group that your are going to do an experiment in improvement. We will start with this person and pass the ball around the room. The rules are that everyone must touch the ball and it must end with the person originating the exercise with the ball. Also remember who you got the ball from and who you passed the ball to. I will time you to see how long it takes.
    Do the exercise and record the time at the bottom left of a flip chart.
    Ask the group, can you improve on that time? You will get a yes. Ok, we will do this exactly the same, starting and ending with the same person. remember who you got the ball from and who you passed it too.
    Repeat the exercise and record the time next to the first recorded time.
    The time may improve a little, but there will not be a significant improvement.
    Repeat the exercise a third time with no change in the rules and record the result.
    Now change the rules. Allow the group to collaborate to figure out how to improve their time. There are no rules other that the ball must end up with the person starting the exercise, everyone must touch the ball and you must get the ball from the person you have been getting the ball from and pass it to your normal person.
    Allow the group some time to get organized and develop a plan. Once they are ready give them a go and record the time on the flip chart to the right of the other three recorded times.
    repeat the exercise two more times giving the group time to develop a plan each time. Record the times to the right of the other recorded times.
    Everyone back to their seats and ask the question: Is this how you get your data on the job. Just numbers on a sheet of paper or a computer screen? Most will say yes. Now convert the numbers to a bar chart. What you will see is that for the first three recorded times there may be some improvement just from repeating an exercise three times, but with the forth number there will be a tremendous improvement. Ask the group: Why did we get this improvement. The answer is we changed the System. We went from top down management to involvement or shared decision making.
    I have used this with many groups of various sizes. I have seen dramatic improvements on the forth round with improvements on the 5th and sixth rounds also. From here you can guide the discussion to gain more knowledge of systems and their application to a company, division, department etc.

    • Gagandeep Datta says:


      Good example. But, I am bit unclear on “You need a ball, pair of socks rolled up in a ball, etc. Explain to the group that your are going to do an experiment in improvement. We will start with this person and pass the ball around the room.”

      What are the props? and what is the improvementexpected by the group?

      • John Hunter says:

        You need a ball (or something else that will be passed between everyone), that is the only prop. The group will figure out how to speed up the time taken to have the ball touched by everybody.

  2. Lew Rhodes says:

    You’ve accurately captured Deming’s view of the connected nature of organizational reality, but there are two words in it– “Focus” and “System” –whose unfortunately-unquestioned definitions continue to “blind” those around the organizational “elephant.”

    The simple reason: the fundamental feature that creates a system out of individual parts – the connections among them – can’t be SEEN. Isn’t that why we create system models, flow charts, and org. charts as “Maps” that don’t actually reflect the “Territory” in which daily work takes place? And which therefore rely on assumptions and beliefs to inform our “system visions.”

    In my current blog post, I address this system blindness as- “The ‘One Thing’ of Connectedness” –
    — And mention my current interest in how Senge’s 6th (yes Sixth) Discipline may offer the desperately needed meaning-making frame for Deming’s “System”-of-Profound-Knowledge.
    I’d be happy to share more…

  3. Your exercise actually has a number of elements working for it. The first is permission to change the system (“better to ask forgiveness than permission”) the second is using a team (“No, the expert isn’t the manager but the people doing the work”) the third is a focus on removing barriers (“Your job as a manager is to make every member of your team successful!”) and the fourth is improvement (“Improving is a continuing process, not an end-point.”) Good job!

  1. August 6, 2015

    […] Most managers that complain about “dead-wood” do it quite often and it is obvious it isn’t a special cause but instead an expected result of the system. The result of employees they consider “dead-wood” is a natural outcome of the organization’s management system. Blaming the “dead-wood” doesn’t fix the problems that need to be fixed. To achieve success management needs to focus on improving the system, not blaming individuals. […]

  2. October 28, 2015

    […] to reconcile that problem while using effective collaborative continual improvement strategies that view the organization as a syste… is challenging. But the performance evaluation of teachers is one of the challenges they have to […]

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