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Parts, wholes and holism

The animation illustrates Ackoff's argument that a system cannot be improved by improving the parts in isolation.

This video summarises an argument made by one of the fathers of systems thinking, Russell Ackoff. As long ago as the 1960s Ackoff gave lectures which criticised the practices of the time that tried to improve business by improving all the parts of the business.

Ackoff quoted surveys that showed that two-thirds of managers said that adopting these approaches had not succeeded in their businesses. To show why, Ackoff gave the story of designing the ‘best’ car by combining the best parts of all the cars on the market.

Of course the parts won’t fit together. They would only fit together if they had been conceived in the context of the whole. Even if they fitted together mechanically, it is very unlikely that they would work together well.

Combining successful parts does not always create a successful whole.

Systems thinking is essentially holistic. This means that the analyst does not expect the behaviour of the whole system to be explained by knowledge of the parts alone. It also requires knowing how the parts are put together and how they interact.

Ackoff, who was trained as an architect, gives architecture as an example of a profession that does think holistically. Architects don’t design individual rooms and then try to fit them together. Rather, they sketch out buildings, thinking in both top-down and bottom-up ways.

The parts of systems can be subsystems. These may be defined by geography or function. For example, Merseyside Police is split into five Basic Command Units – Wirral, Sefton, Knowsley, St Helens and Liverpool. Each unit has a combination of neighbourhood policing teams, response teams and criminal investigations units [3].

As an example from literature, the creature created by Baron Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s book was made from the best human parts, but the whole did not function well.

What do you think?

Have you experience of a system that failed because the managers focused on the parts without understanding their interactions as a whole? Do you have experience of trying to improve a system? Was it successful? Share your experiences in the comments below.


[1] Merseyside Police, Merseyside Police, viewed 2 November 2016.

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Systems Thinking and Complexity

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