ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — May 2004

In This Issue

In the Spotlight
Living Strategy

Integrating AQP
Letter From AQP’s President

Living Community Model Member Categories

Living Communities Model Questions and Answers


News Bites
In a Nutshell
Moving the Elephant
NFC Goes Electronic
Resources for Success
May 2004 News For A Change — Home Page

NFC Index

AQP Home

Moving the Elephant

Beyond “Systems Thinking”

The Problem
Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the famous consultant for whom Japan’s prestigious quality award is named, demonstrated how systems work using the “red bead experiment.” He would stand in front of corporate leaders and pretend to be the manager of the White Bead Manufacturing Company. He would enlist volunteers from the audience to come on stage and serve as “willing workers” in his production enterprise.

The manufacturing process for Deming’s imaginary company required each willing worker to dip a large paddle with 50 indentations into a bowl with thousands of beads, 80% of which were white and 20% were red. Deming was concerned about the quality of production in his plant because it produced about 20% red beads instead of the desired white beads.

To howls of laughter from the audience, Deming would try a number of traditional management solutions. He rewarded the workers who produced the highest percentage of white beads and had them train the others in exactly how they dipped their paddles. He fired the poorest performers and replaced them with new willing workers from the audience.

He held motivational rallies. He drafted mission statements. The audience and willing workers laughed because they saw how fruitless these steps were.

The quality problem in the White Bead Manufacturing Company was not caused by the workers but by randomness inherent within the system. The manager’s efforts to improve the workers’ performance only made things worse, frustrating them and removing attention from the real cause.

When he finished his demonstration, Deming would point his finger at the managers in his audience and emphatically tell them that they, not their workers, were responsible for most quality problems in their organizations. They were responsible for the system, where most quality problems arise. He insisted they stop trying to fix the people and start understanding the system, so intelligent strategies could be devised.

Deming’s experiment assumes a mechanical system, where the willing workers are like inanimate objects in a system that is designed and put together by the manager. This experiment illustrates the important point that Deming was making about systems, but generally it is not good to assume that organizations are like machines. Organizations are living beings, comprised of living beings who spontaneously evolve.

When “systems thinkers” see organizations in mechanistic terms, they become like the willing workers. They see themselves as in control of the situation, while the situation is actually in control of them. To view living systems mechanistically is to deny transformational change. It’s to miss how people and organizations operate at their most fundamental level. It’s to deny being a part of the system and to limit the possibility for solving impossible-to-solve problems.

A Solution
Earlier articles in this series used the metaphor of an elephant to represent a system. One blind man touches the leg of the elephant and thinks an elephant is like a post. We’ve examined how dynamic facilitation can help him to “see” the whole elephant and to appreciate it as a living being.

The dynamic facilitator does this by helping the man identify the problem he cares about most, regardless of whether it is solvable or is in his area of responsibility. Rather than breaking this problem into its component parts, which is the normal approach, or rationally trying to “see” the larger system of which it is a part, the facilitator follows the blind man’s interests and fears. It’s a type of heart-based systems thinking known as “choice creating.” With choice creating, people let go of their preconceived ideas about the problem, possible options, and about themselves. They discover new opportunities.

The dynamic facilitator takes people as they are, helping them to say what is on their minds. Then they follow their energy, which is essentially letting their unconscious minds lead the way. Of course, people are still logical and deliberate at times, but the dynamic facilitator primarily goes with the flow, trusting that a pattern will emerge.

As people talk, the dynamic facilitator captures each comment on one of four different lists—solutions, data, concerns, or problem-statements. This way each comment is valued. Insights and shifts occur as people see the bigger picture, the whole elephant. At some point, people reach a new level of clarity and they just know what to do. Plus, they feel motivated to act.

We are all willing workers inside a living system. Dynamic facilitation and choice creating can help us become aware of our situation and help us to extricate ourselves from it. It provides us with a method to see the whole elephant and to feel empowered to affect our situation.

JIM ROUGH is a consultant, seminar leader, speaker, and author. He invented dynamic facilitation ( and the wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit Center for Wise Democratic Processes (

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