Train-Wreck Management v.s. Systems Thinking


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If you haven’t read The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done I highly recommend it for you iconoclasts out there. It provides a great history of how management structures of the past 150 years got started (after a Western Railroad train-wreck in 1841), how they worked (briefly) and ultimately how Lean and Systems Thinking have disrupted them (even if they don’t know it) over the past 50+ years. Every page of this book had me giggling or guffawing at some point. The rest of the time I was simply fascinated.

To make a long story short, this book takes you on a journey into systems thinking and completely dissects the entire concept of carrot and stick, hierarchical management. The premise is that at the end of the day you just can’t improve a business by managing dozens, hundreds or thousands of variables – your employees. All you can really manage, and improve, are systems; which defines the daily work and engagement of your employees. The belief is that if you don’t understand your business as a system, or your partner relationships as interdependent systems, or your industry as a larger system within which you participate; you just don’t get it. The author actually laughs at those of us who still hold a belief system that began its slow disruption shortly after World War II.

“A wagon pulled by a team of horses can move no faster than the slowest horse”

Just to get you riled up, I thought I would share what the author calls “brain-shakers” in the preface to the book; which then goes on to back everything up in great detail. Let me know what you think:


  • More than 95% of your organization’s problems derive from your systems, process, and methods, not from your individual workers. Your people are doing their best, but their best efforts cannot compensate for your inadequate and dysfunctional systems.
  • We look to the heroic efforts of outstanding individuals for our successful work. Instead we must create systems that routinely allow excellent work to result from the ordinary efforts of ordinary people.
  • Changing the system will change what people do. Changing what people do will not change the system.
  • Certain common management approaches – management by objectives, performance appraisal, merit pay, pay for performance, and ISO 9000 – represent not leadership but the abdication of leadership.
  • Current buzzwords like empowerment, accountability, and high performance are meaningless, empty babble.
  • Ninety-five percent of the changes undertaken in organizations have nothing to do with improvement.
  • The greatest conceit of managers is that they can motivate people. Managers’ attempts to motivate people will only make things worse.
  • Behind incentive programs lies management’s patronizing and cynical set of assumptions about workers. Managers implicitly say to workers, “I’m okay, you need incentives.” Managers imply that their workers are withholding a certain amount of effort, waiting for it to be bribed out of them.


We have been trained across multiple generations to accept hierarchy in our work. However, we can see just by looking at the automobile industry how that has failed us over the past 40 years as competitors employing systems thinking and continuous improvement have disrupted the old way of doing things. It has also begun to permeate other parts of businesses; not just manufacturing. The beauty of it is that for all of you who talk about employee engagement you’ll get something out of this new way to work as well. It’s not about using carrots to get people to engage with each other. It’s about creating a system of work that allows them to work together more effectively, and work together to continually improve the system. This, ultimately, is what will also make work more fun for your employees.

But, we have a little problem: we have a lot of baggage to shed (as employees) from our past experiences, and those of our forefathers. We also have leaders that will likely never change unless they are forced to through competitive pressure; or replacement. It’s happening, but not fast enough. Japan adopted this thinking decades ago; and guess where they learned it? From Americans. Go figure.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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