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
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
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
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
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 (www.ToBE.net) and the
wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit
Center for Wise Democratic Processes (www.WiseDemocracy.org).