Peter Scholtes on Teams and Viewing the Organization as a System

In this presentation Peter Scholtes provides an explanation of teams within the context of understanding an organization of a system:

We will not improve our ability to achieve our purpose by empowering people or holding people accountable. I know that those are fashionable words but what they have in common that I think is the wrong approach is that they still are focused on the people and not on the systems and processes. I’m sure that will trigger quite a bit of conversation and perhaps some questions.

He is right, though those are difficult old thoughts to break from for many. He does a good job of explaining how to seek better methods to achieve more success in this presentation and in the Leader’s Handbook. Following the links in the quote above will also provide more details on Peter’s thoughts.

Peter includes a description of the creation of the “organization chart” (which Peter calls “train wreck management”) that we are all familiar with today; it was created in the Whistler report on a Western Railroad accident in 1841.

Almost a direct quote from the Whistler report: “so when something goes wrong we know who was derelict in his duty.” The premise behind the traditional organizational chart is that systems are ok (if we indeed recognize that there are such things as systems) things are ok if everyone would do his or her job. The cause of problems is dereliction of duty.

Peter then provides an image of W. Edwards Deming’s organization as a system diagram which provides a different way to view organizations.

In the old way of viewing organizations you look for culprits, in this way of viewing the organization you look for inadequacies in the system. In the old way of viewing the organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is your boss. In this way of viewing an organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is our customers.

This is an absolutely great presentation: I highly recommend it (as I highly recommend Peter’s book: The Leader’s Handbook).

Without understanding a systems view of an organization you can’t understand whats at the heart of the quality movement and therefore everything else you do, management interventions, ways of relating to people, will reflect more likely the old philosophy rather than the new one.


Points like this are very true but difficult to understand until you come to view organizations as systems.

The whole notion of empowering people reflects the hierarchical view of the organization. People at the higher levels of the hierarchy empower people in the lower levels of the hierarchy. I suppose if you are going to stay with a hierarchical set of premises empowerment is better than no empowerment but if we are going to try and convert our thinking to a systems view then the notion of empowerment has no meaning in a systems organization.

When a group of people have a clear purpose then they can be called the beginning of a team. Then they will be able to make themselves into a team, when previously they were just an aggregate of individuals.

If you want to create teamwork in a group of people the best way to do that is give them a job worth doing and the methods to do it successfully.

Previous posts on this blog on related ideas: Build an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes, Building a Great Software Development Team and How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture.

Related: An Introduction to Deming’s Management Ideas byter Scholtes (webcast)Leaders of People: Some are Wonderful, Some are Clueless. The Rest are Somewhere In BetweenFind the Root Cause Instead of the Person to BlameWhy do you hire dead wood? Or why do you hire live wood and kill it?

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