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October 21, 2005

Dancing With Systems

By Donella Meadows

Versions of this piece have been published in Whole Earth, winter 2001 and The Systems Thinker, Vol. 13, No. 2 (March 2002).

The Dance

1. Get the beat.
2. Listen to the wisdom of the system.
3. Expose your mental models to the open air.
4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.
5. Honor and protect information.
6. Locate responsibility in the system.
7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
9. Go for the good of the whole.
10. Expand time horizons.
11. Expand thought horizons.
12. Expand the boundary of caring.
13. Celebrate complexity.
14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mindset of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.

To read this article, click on the link: Dancing With Systems

Posted by ACASA on October 21, 2005 at 02:39 PM in Interesting | Permalink


The late Donella “Dana” Meadows’ piece “Dancing with Systems” provides insight into the choreography one must practice to understand the ever changing dynamics of systems. In many respects, all of the steps to “The Dance” are required if one desires to transform a system, especially if that system involves the safety and health of factory floor workers. This is no easy task and should not be undertaken by the faint of heart. Attempting to change the safety and health work processes of an organization is a messy challenge, but if done in a participative fashion it can reap significant benefits to the factory floor worker and those in management seeking profitability.

In the early 1990’s, an opportunity presented itself to apply Dr. Ackoff’s systems thinking framework – Interactive Planning – to a safety, health and environmental function in the DuPont Company. The story behind the results of this systems thinking intervention appeared in Systemic Practice and Action Research [15:2 (85-105) April 2002]. Clearly, one of the success factors was involving individuals from the factory floor to the Vice President/General Manager and everyone in-between. Although the factory floor workers may not have felt they had gained “any more control over their work,” they certainly believed they were part of the decision making process, which led to the overall transformation of the safety, health and environmental function. One indicator revealed that injuries were reduced almost 50% in a company revered as “the safest company in the world.”

Robert Karasek’s work is somewhat known among safety and health practitioners; however, the application of his work has not been effectively translated to the factory floor with respect to safety and heath. Indeed, it is intellectually interesting to see the correlations Karasek has established over the years, but at the end of the day manufacturers want to produce a product that makes money for its shareholders and avoid hurting workers, as much as possible. DuPont has mastered this for over 200 years. Karasek’s work may offer some fine tuning of the DuPont safety approach, but I doubt it would be of any great significance.

As far as Steve Prevette’s graduate student, I would encourage her to focus her attention on creating the “Means” for translating Karasek’s and others’ works into practical applications at the factory floor level as opposed to re-proving that Karasek’s work is correct. Conducting surveys of workers “self-reporting of physical pain, psychological stress and feelings of control over work” is somewhat dubious at best. The results indicated in Mr. Prevette’s first paragraph are not surprising at all to anyone who has over ten years experience in the safety and health field at a manufacturing facility, especially if the facility is a union shop. These results merely state the obvious. A true contribution by Prevette’s graduate student would involve researching practical applications that could lead to interventions in the work place that would reduce pain and stress, while providing the worker with a sense of being a part of the decision making process involving his or her safety and health.

One of the key learnings from the DuPont experience centered on fully understanding that one’s worldview of what is right for the factory floor workers may not correlate at all with the factory floor worker’s beliefs, much less his or her supervisor, plant manager, business director, vice president, president or CEO. People at different levels of the organization have differing views of safety and health. The same can be said for applying systems thinking interventions into a world of reductionist thinkers. On its face, systems thinkers want to believe their approach to thinking will stir compelling arguments and make for better theory among non-systems thinkers. Unfortunately, it just does not work that way and probably will never work that way. So as systems thinkers we must create innovative ways to enter the system in order to nudge it toward becoming more effective. Dana Meadows provides the choreography for this to be possible.

Posted by: Jim Leemann at Dec 20, 2005 3:03:33 PM

Have you made a connection between your work and safety and health of the workers? I am working with a student on her PhD thesis, which started as a study of the "aging workforce" and injuries. Come to find out, if you do look at rate of injuries (on a per person basis) there is no correlation between age and injuries. But she did do a survey of 160 workers at Hanford, collecting info on self reported physical pain, psychological stress, and feelings of control over work. Althought there also was no age effect there, there was a strong correlation between reports of pain, high psych stress, and low control over work. Those who felt they had high control over their work reported less pain, even if the jobs were "stressful".

In the industrial psychology world (this is what the student is working on her PhD for) Robert Karasek and others have documented a connection between coronary hear disease, depression, and other physical symptoms arising from persons who feel they have low control over their work, but high psychological stress. Karasek calls for redesign of work to allow for a more participative style of management, but offers little for means.

I think there may be a very strong advantage to linking your work on systems and participative management to Karasek's work. It seems the your arguments (and Dr. Deming's) were largely productivity and quality focused. If we can also tie safety and health in, it may make a more compelling argument and theory. And, OSHA through the Voluntary Protection Program is supporting the idea of more worker involvement in the safety arena. Perhaps that model could be spread to the whole management structure.

Posted by: Steve Prevette at Dec 18, 2005 7:07:51 PM

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