Russ Ackoff: What’s a system?

This tour-de-force 1994 video of Russ Ackoff covers a lot in 12 minutes. It’s called: “If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk.” A fitting title.

What’s a system? A system is a whole … that consists of parts, each of which can affect its behavior or its properties. You, for example, are a biological system called an organism, and you consist of parts — your heart, your lungs, your pancreas, and so on — each of which can affect your behavior.

The second requirement is that each part of the system, when it affects the system, is dependent for its effect on some other part. In other words, the parts are interdependent. No part of the system, or collection of parts in the system, has an independent effect on it. Therefore, the way the heart affects you depends on what the lungs are doing and what the brain is doing. The parts are all interconnected. Therefore the system as a whole cannot be divided into independent parts.

That has very important implications that are generally overlooked. First, the essential or defining properties of any system are properties of the whole which none of its parts have. …

Finding deficiencies and getting rid of them is not a way of improving the performance of the system. … An improvement program must be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want. …

The last point i want to make is that continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it. …

One never becomes a leader by continuous improving. That’s an imitation of a leader. …

Peter Drucker made a very fundamental distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing. … Doing the wrong thing right is not nearly as good as doing the right thing wrong.

The automobile is destroying urban life around the world. … And then we talk about the quality of automobiles that [people] are driving. It’s the wrong concept of quality.

Quality ought to contain the notion of value, not merely efficiency. That’s the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Quality ought to be directed at effectiveness.

The difference between efficiency and effectiveness is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

See also: From Data to Wisdom

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