The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Optimize the Overall System Not the Individual Components

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graphic of "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." quote by W. Edwards Deming

From Dr. Deming’s last interview; published in Industry Week magazine.

The results of a system must be managed by paying attention to the entire system. When we optimize sub-components of the system we don’t necessarily optimize the overall system. This is true when looking at the people as Dr. Deming mentions. It is also true when optimizing say one department or one process.

Optimizing the results for one process is not the same as operating that process in the way that leads to the most benefit for the overall system.

It is a lot easier within an organization that doesn’t view the organization as a system to assign responsibility to achieve specific results to specific individuals and components of the organization. Which is likely why most organization manage themselves this way. Even they see the risks of such behavior and so most often there are requirements to consult with those who are impacted.

But most often these efforts to have people cooperate outside of what they are held accountable for are weak and the primary focus is on optimizing what they are accountable for. And the organization suffers even while improving results of components because the most significant gains are to be made in managing the organization as a system not in optimizing components within the system.

The management system will nearly always determine how the individuals working within it manage. The lack of teamwork is not something that the individuals bring to the workplace that failure to work together is the result of how the organization has been setup. To change behavior the management system must be changed.

Related: Break Down Barriers Between DepartmentsWhy do you hire dead wood? Or why do you hire live wood and kill it?Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingWhere There is Fear You Do Not Get Honest FiguresDistorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the System


Categorised as: management systems, systems thinking


3 Comments

  1. I’ve thought about this a concept a lot. I’m a project manager who works with a lot partners. I view us as part of one system. However, how can I optimize the whole when I am not responsible for their processes? I can only change ours. Often, the project will suffer because the partners are not trying to improve their own systems. I’d love to help them, but am afraid to stick my nose in their business when I am not wanted. All I can tell them is we aren’t getting the result we had expected from them and offer possible suggestions. Its troubling. Any thoughts?

    • Hal says:

      Dan, you pose a timeless question that begs a longer response. However, I’ll simply share the old adage, “How many PMs (or fill in the blank) does it take to change a light bulb? None if it doesn’t want to change.”
      Without a change in leadership’s thinking your results/improvements will be sporadic at best. Sad that most leadership is still ignorant of Systems Thinking.

  2. Ernest Chaure says:

    In my opinion this is a good article but a bit incomplete for 100% effectiveness.
    According my experience even the systems must be, of course, overall improved, this task should be started by the weakest point.
    Therefore, using the theory of constraints TOC from Goldratt in combination with Deming’s recommendations we have a powerful tool to improve overall nearly any system.

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