There are two models that can describe the way people are valued and managed in organizations.

One is the centuries-old model associated with Isaac Newton where the physical world is thought of as a machine. This model also was adopted by biology and physiology as well as the social sciences of psychology, sociology, economics, and politics.

The other is a whole-system, ecological model, consistent with the mutual dependence and natural variation of living systems.

The management style that Deming criticized comes from the model of the organization as a machine. It has dominated management thinking for decades, although the managers who apply this model probably do not consciously recognize it as the basis for much of their thinking, values, and practices.

Rather, they have been following the teaching of business schools, management consultants, business books, the management traditions of their own organizations, and the practices of CEOs that the media have anointed as leaders to emulate, as well as fads, fashions, and narrowly focused programs.

Following the principles of Newtonian mechanics, an organization is viewed as a complex mechanical system, like a clock. To understand how a clock works, it must be taken apart and reduced to its component parts. The parts are studied and then reassembled into a whole working mechanism.

Russell Ackoff explained that it is a process of analysis by which the whole is understood by taking it apart, conceptually or physically. It can be seen when children, trying to understand how something works, such as a new toy or something they haven’t seen before, take it apart in order to understand the behavior of the separate parts and how they fit together. They then add together these separate understandings into an understanding of how the whole works…

In this model, perfect prediction conceptually is possible like dominos lined up behind each other. When a force causes the first one to fall, then in succession fall the second and third and all the rest. Theoretically, this behavior can be precisely predicted because action and reaction occurs in a vacuum (i.e., without the effect of external environmental influences).

However, mechanical systems are not perfectly predictable outside of theory. The environment does have an effect.

The principles of Newton’s mechanics were a foundation of the Industrial Revolution and made possible the engineered and built world in which we live and has enabled some of us to travel to the moon. It is an appealing model to extend beyond its original conceptualization of the physical world because it reduces a complex organization to one that is easier to understand and manage.

It enables management to think in terms of the visible aspects of the physical world. Inherent in the model is a simple view of causality: do this and get that.People are valued as inputs to the organization machine. They are seen as “labor” and pushed and pulled by rewards for “good” performance and punishments for “poor” performance. Incentives, rewards, and punishments are applied as energy from a source outside of employees to push and pull them in order to move them to meet management’s performance objectives.

People are evaluated as if they have complete control over their performance once they are put into motion in a system where unwanted variation is viewed as someone’s error rather than due to the system itself. In addition, the enterprise is viewed as a collection of independent parts where performance of the whole is conceptualized and calculated as the sum of the performances of the separate parts.

If there is a problem or failure or defect, some person or persons get blamed.

Values are reflected in the language heard in these organizations, such as well-oiled machine, shift gears, rev up growth, and pump up sales. What do these metaphors reveal about the assumptions underlying management systems? What expectations do they create? What actions and performance do they produce? If, for example, you believe in a well-oiled machine, it is more likely that you value tight, top-down, extrinsic control of employees rather than employee intrinsic self-control and freedom and discretion to solve local problems, improve, and innovate. A machine-like system, managed by extrinsic values, discourages cooperative relationships between people and units and encourages adversarial competition to “bring out the best.”

The machine model of management is reductive. Human beings are viewed as the sum of their biological components.

Consider this description of the biological reductionism of a human life, which illustrates the fallacy of applying the model to living systems: “If it were to be taken literally, man could be ultimately defined as consisting of nothing but 90 percent water and 10 percent minerals—a statement which is no doubt true, but not very helpful.”

The philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi maintained that we will never be able to reduce living things to the processes of physics and chemistry. Yet we try to do it anyway, for example by thinking that the discovery of DNA is completing our understanding of living things by reducing them to physical and chemical processes.

Underlying this reductive model is the assumption that organisms are mechanisms, and since mechanisms work according to the laws of physics and chemistry, organisms must work according to the same laws.

There is so much that a reductive model can’t explain.

Humans are sentient. They have individuality, and language, and social principles, and the ability to create. A reductive mental model does not respect the uniqueness of being human.

Russell Ackoff tells us that no part of a human being is human; only the whole is. It is a whole human being that comes to work. 

People have many aspects to their lives. Work is a person’s contribution to the enterprise, and it also should contribute to the meaning of the person’s life as a whole. The mechanistic-reductive model doesn’t allow for human characteristics such as purpose and creativity. It promotes the extrinsic manipulation of people. People are viewed as parts of the machine and as economic entities rather than whole human beings.

I recall one time when Dr. Deming heard that an employee was moving to another position and would be “replaced.” Deming did not like that word. In his mind, human beings are unique individuals and are not replaceable like machine parts.

Organizations have their purposes, said Deming, but so do people.  “How could there be life without aims and hopes? Everyone has aims, hopes, plans.”

According to Russell Ackoff, in order for an organization to function as a whole-system, the purposes of whole must include purposes of parts. Therefore, employees are valued not as inert parts of a machine that have to be pushed and pulled but as human beings who have their own aims, interests, and a life outside of the organization.

Human motivation comes primarily from the internal energy of purpose, not from the external forces of positive and negative incentives. A different model of an organization is needed, one where management views the organization primarily as a social system, as an ecology of human relationships.

Learn More About Deming Principles at Aileron

As Dr. Deming believed, working together is fundamental to solving and preventing problems, while providing us the ability to “do more with less.” In partnership with Aileron, the W. Edwards Deming Institute® introduces a new 8-hour immersion program to help you learn Dr. Deming’s principles, Introduction to Deming Management Method. This workshop is for leaders at all levels of management to help you focus on the foundations of teamwork and the connecting power and financial potential this can provide your organization.