Change from Inside or Outside of the System


    Last week, I tweeted a quote that's supposedly from Dr. W. Edwards Deming. I can only find one other online reference… does this sound like something Deming would have said?

    “Knowledge required to change the existing system to a better system must come from outside the existing system.”

    A few folks on Twitter seemed to challenge that assertion (hard to tell tone in 140 characters, sometimes).

    I think you need a balance of INSIDE and OUTSIDE.

    A team of all insiders might be stuck in the old way of thinking, just seeing variations of how things have always been done. I think of Dr. Sami Bahri, the Lean Dentist… he used to go to dental conferences and training sessions and he said he just got the same variations of the same practices that didn't work well.

    He needed some outside influences — his reading of Shingo and Ohno brought a Toyota perspective that's served him well (as he describes in his book Follow the Learner: The Role of a Leader in Creating a Lean Culture.

    Dr. Bahri combined outside influences and ideas (from the automotive industry and engineering) with his inside knowledge of dentistry.

    When I've worked with hospitals, the improvements we made were a combination of outside and inside ideas. We couldn't have done anything with ONLY my outside perspectives… we needed both perspectives. It's much easier to teach smart and motivated nurses the Lean concepts… it's not rocket science, they take to it very quickly. But, left on their own, they wouldn't have come up with Lean on their own.

    Is that what Dr. Deming was (allegedly) trying to say? What are your experiences?

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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 seem to remember reading something from Deming proposing that our educational system has destroyed our creativity. If we as individuals and teams could think outside the box we wouldn’t need the outside influence. Myself I need the outside influence, because my method is copy and adapt, but I need a starting place.

    2. Mark – I think you are referring to Chapter 4, The New Economics:
      "Aim of this chapter. The prevailing style of management must undergo transformation. A system can not understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside. The aim of this chapter is to provide an outside view–a lens–that I call a system of profound knowledge. It provides a map of theory by which to understand the organizations that we work in."

    3. Steve Harper has the closest quote from Deming that I know of. I really sounds more like the Einstein quote: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

    4. Lester:

      You just beat me with the Einstein quote! I use it regularly when encouraging people to bring in outside resources as they begin a lean transformation. Reading works, but it takes a special mind and ALOT MORE TIME to pull yourself up by your bootstraps with books. Teachers and networking move things along much faster.


    5. I don't think Deming is actually suggesting that change can't come from the inside. He's saying that it requires a VIEW from the outside. What he's saying is that if you're in the forest, you can't see it for the trees. You need to view it from outside in order to understand it as a system. If you don't understand the system, making changes to it would be "meddling" as he commonly said. Understanding the system does not require you to be an outsider. You just need to see the system as a whole.

      I also just got through reading Built to Last which suggests that perhaps the best people to create change in an organization are the insiders and NOT outsiders. Great companies breed people and organizations capable of great things. Usually when the outsiders brought in to create change leave, so does any progress made under their tenure.

      I think what this all means is that outsiders can bring in new ideas, but if the system doesn't change, it will revert to its former state once the outside influence departs.

    6. That hints at Godel's work. Possibly the incompleteness theorem. I am sure someone more familar can correct me, but I seem to remember something along the lines of being unable to prove something about a system from with in the system. Given Demings background in physics I wouldn't be surprised if he knew about this and saw its application to industry.

    7. I agree that a system cannot be changed without insider cooperation. Only people who have “lived” the system understand the culture the system must operate within. But you will only get 30% of the way to change with only the insiders. An outsider is definitely needed to identify problems that exist within a system and to bring about that other 70% of change. There could be exceptions to this but I would posit they are very rare. Whether that system will accept the outsiders judgments and decisions is another question altogether. Often times the messenger is killed. To be willing to bring in an outsider and actually listen to that person requires a level of honesty and self examination that is both painful and extremely rare. Of course it always starts with “true” leadership. Been there, done that!


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