W. Edward Deming Management System Definition

A search on the internet for, “What is a Management System” will likely present a description similar to the following. “A management system is the framework of policies, processes and procedures used to ensure that an organization can fulfill all tasks required to achieve its objectives.”

The definition fails to acknowledge that all of the components that make up the system must be interdependent. Simply completing all tasks will not ensure achievement of system objectives, unless all components are functioning in complete harmony. In addition, all system components must be appropriate with reference to their assistance in meeting the objective.

It’s been more than 50 years since W. Edwards Deming introduced his revolutionary management system concepts to the business world. However, many still do not fully understand their practical application, nor the benefits to be gained by their use. But, even before our exposure to formal systems thinking concepts, most of us were exposed to organizations that applied systematic practices in their strategic and tactical operations.

Initial Exposure to a Management System

For instance, my parochial educators applied similar processes from kindergarten through high school to develop our ability to think critically. Their management system apparently did not rely on written procedures, but rather upon their complete understanding of their system’s aim. This enabled them to intuitively integrate all of the elements required to meet their objectives. Apparently Deming was familiar with such informal management systems as stated in the following definition.

W. Edwards Deming Management System Definition

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. The components need not all be clearly defined and documented, people may merely do what needs to be done. Management of a system therefore requires knowledge of the interrelationships between all the components within the system and of the people that work in it. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. We cannot afford the destructive effort of competition. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system.”

The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education – W Edwards Deming (1994) MIT Press

Military Management System

Military service exposed me to another version of systems thinking, where virtually every task we performed required our study and implementation of written Standard Operating Procedures.

In retrospect, I more fully understand the difference in the processes used by my educators and military peers. My parochial school teachers were all dedicated to lifetime membership within their chosen community. Extensive training and low turnover apparently negated the necessity for written instructions to ensure attainment of their objectives. However, the heavy turnover of military personnel required comprehensive written instructions to ensure consistency in efforts to accomplish goals.

The industrial sector is more like the military than a religious community with regards to stability of personnel. As a result, more written instructions are typically used to ensure, in Deming’s words, “knowledge of the interrelationships between all the components within the system and of the people that work in it.” The following image provides an example of a tool that provides consistent guidance to establish, implement and maintain management systems.

The complex process involved in the establishment, implementation and maintenance of a Safety Management System can be greatly simplified by the selection and use of appropriate tools. It is important to select tools that provide guidance throughout the entire Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle to ensure continual improvement of performance.

I invite your comments and questions.

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