Why few organizations adopt…


Ackoff Center Weblog: Why few organizations adopt systems thinking

Click on the link above for a blog post by the legendary Systems Thinker Russell Ackoff. He writes about reasons why more organizations don't adopt “systems thinking” if it works so well.

Ackoff says:

There be many reasons why any particular organization fails to adopt systems thinking but I believe there are two that are the most important, one general and one specific. By a general reason I mean one that is responsible for organizations failing to adopt any transforming idea, let alone systems thinking.

I think his points are absolutely transferable to the question of why more organizations don't try Lean (let's put aside those who try and fail).

  1. The general reason: Fear ('tis easier and less risky to do nothing)
  2. The specific reason: The Systems Thinking crowd writes primarily for the Systems Thinking crowd

Is this also true in the Lean community? Are we primarily speaking to each other or are we trying to get new Lean folks into the fold?

What's the mix reading this blog, in terms of A) just learning about lean, B) have worked with lean a little, or C) strongly part of the “Lean community”??

Leave a comment if you'd like to share which group you're a part of. I know my audience here has a wide mix of experience ranges in working with Lean. Should I set up a formal web poll to see what the experience mix is?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I don’t know about the mix reading your blog, Mark, but my gut feeling is that generally we are all preaching to the choir.

    To answer your specific question, I categorize myself as ‘C.’

  2. I’ll class myself as a “B”.

    Interesting comment about the Systems Thinking crowd only talking to themselves. I think the observation has merit. It is not uncommon in any academic discipline for the focus to become more and more narrow and sophisticated, raising the barriers to entry for newcomers, and enshrining the early practitioners as leaders in their field of study. Some things I read about Lean go this way. Learned discussions about the format of the A3 report, how to set Kanban sizes, how to do 5S, should it be 6S, etc.

    However, the appeal of Lean is that the core idea is still very simple and accessable. From Ohno: “All we are doing is looking at the timeline….” (you should know the rest of the quote). I can use this with people new to Lean and they get it right away. The goal is clear. The methods may become increasingly complex but so much is doable, even at a very rudimentary level. In contrast, hink about trying to teach everyone Theory of Constraints to a level where it can be used on a day to day basis.

    Lean doesn’t have to go up the academic tree and become removed from the shop floor. We can keep it approachable, useable, and practical.

  3. I’d put myself as a “C”.

    I think the problem with both systems thinking AND lean is that neither camp (especially us consultants who should know better) do a good job of tying our ideas to demonstrable business results.

    When value stream mapping, kanban systems, 5S and standardized work become ends rather than means to achieve greater profitability – with real, demonstrable results – we hurt our ability to persuade the ones sitting on the sidelines to join in.

  4. As a systems thinker, I would agree with Mark on both counts, but state it a little differently. I think the “general reason” has more to do with comfort than fear. The perception is, “if it worked before, why fix it.”

    As to systems thinkers only talking and writing to other systems thinkers, I couldn’t agree more. Of course, this is not unique to the systems thinkers discipline. This is prevalent in all types of disciplines and professions to include the LEAN discipline.

    Systems thinking, and it sounds like LEAN, desperately need a “Thinking Revolution” not unlike the Renaissance of old. Even though problems or messes (i.e., systems of problems) of today may be as complex as yesterday, in today’s world messes tend to hit us more rapidly than ever before and people continue to use linear thinking and wonder, “Why the hell won’t this work?” I don’t mean to paint systems thinkers and LEAN pracitioners with a broad brush, but we sure like to talk and write to each other in our journals and blogs so much that it seems we have become a clique with secret passwords and handshakes.

    We need to break out of this cloistered behavior and start sharing our approaches to the masses in such a way that everyone is using systems thinking as much as they are currently using linear thinking. If we can’t show the general population how to use systems thinking to solve or as systems thinkers say “dissolve” their everyday problems then we are destined to only draw enjoyment from intellectual discourse and ultimately watch the demise of systems thinking sometime in the not to distant future.

    We should take every opportunity to seek out non-systems thinking and non-LEAN forums to present are means for dissolving messes. I have found conferences and publications are very interested in systems thinking because it brings something new and different to their listening and reading audiences. Try it, you just might be surprised.

  5. I’m definitely in camp A. The first time I heard the terms ‘lean’ and ‘kaizen’ was when they were presented at a company forum. Seems that we had already adopted lean principles in other segments of the organization than my own.

    Being curious, I did a web search and came upon this blog. I’ve followed the feed for a few months now, largely just because I find the subject interesting.

    (A quick addition: it was rather confusing at that initial company meeting hearing the guy extol the virtues of lean and kaizen when I had no idea what the heck the terms meant. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.)


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