Systems and Sustainability

Classic passage from W. Edwards Deming, the management consultant whose knowledge model inspired the total quality management movement.

What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. 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 aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment. (We are of course talking here about a man-made system.)…

A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves in the Western world, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centres, and thus destroy the system. . . . The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. We can not afford the destructive effect of competition. — W. Edwards Deming (emphasis mine)

If a system requires management, does this mean that systems, unlike organic ecosystems, aren’t inherently sustainable and don’t negotiate their own balance?

What are the implications of viewing a man-made system as something that’ll fall apart without deliberate attention?

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