The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

What is a system?


Guest post by Keith Sparkjoy, vice president of the Sparkjoy Foundation, originally featured as a post at  Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Keith.

Dictionary definition: “a collection of parts that make up a whole”.

Deming took this one step further by postulating that every system must have an aim.

Many systems evolve without their “designers” consciously thinking about an aim, but you can often reverse-engineer the aim of a system by studying its makeup and the outcomes it’s producing.

In nature we see many examples of systems, and the aim there seems to be sustainability. Nature tends to balance itself so that only the necessary parts in the system remain, and unnecessary parts die out.

Wetlands are a great example of a sustainable system. Fish eat plants and produce ammonia as waste. If this ammonia were allowed to build up, it would eventually become toxic. Certain types of bacteria treat this ammonia as “food” and convert it into nitrites and ultimately into nitrates, which is “food” for plants. The plants remove the nitrates from the water, effectively cleaning it so the fish can thrive. All of the parts work together to contribute to the aim of the system, and the aim is sustainability – that all of the parts may thrive. Fish, bacteria, and plants, ultimately live together in harmony.

Humans create systems all the time. A business is a system. A school is a system. A home is a system. How well any of these systems function, how effective and efficient they are, often comes down to how well the parts cooperate to support the aim.

Complex systems are fractal in nature. Take a school, for example. If the aim of the school is to serve the students so they develop into mature, contributing adults in a democratic society, then every part of the school must contribute in some way to that aim. For example, a necessary part of a school is facility maintenance, which creates a physical environment conducive to achieving the aim of the school.

One part of a system can become selfish, no longer concerned with the aim of the overall system. Think about what would happen if the fish in a wetland were to multiply so much that it was out of balance. The entire system could be destroyed this way. Nature takes care of this by eliminating the excess fish – they starve if there’s not enough food, and the system restores its balance.

What about human-engineered systems such as schools, business, and government? It’s remarkable how these systems survive as long as they do given the amount of selfishness present in the parts. Take departmental goal setting as an example in business. Each department is out for itself, trying to be number one by hitting its goals, versus thinking about what’s right for the overall system of which it is a part.

When a part of a system becomes selfish, it weakens the overall system, which ultimately harms all of the parts. When a part of a system makes a sacrifice that helps the overall system, all of the parts of the system are rewarded because the whole system thrives.

Categorised as: management systems, process thinking, system of profound knowledge, systems thinking

One Comment

  1. Ed Baker says:

    Deming often made the point that the dictionary provides information, not knowledge. We can see this by the dictionary definition mentioned in this blog: “a collection of parts that make up a whole”. Elsewhere, one dictionary definition of collection is “an accumulation.” Some other dictionary definitions are better, e.g.,an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole, which is closer to the discussion in the blog. “Knowlege of a system, as expressed in the blog, tells us that a system is much more; interactions, interdependencies, aim, and other dynamics. A “collection” is static. Remember,”the map (i.e., the words)is not the territory.”

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