Joel Orr Commentary: Connecting the Pieces

June 16, 2005
Successful organizations have integrity. All their parts support each other toward a common goal. That makes them efficient, harmonious, and productive. Engineering professionals have tools to help ensure these qualities, but seldom apply them to organizations. Why? What can be done about it?

Dr. Joel Orr
VP and Chief Visionary
Cyon Research Corporation

If your organization were an animal, what would it be? A sleek tiger, a powerful and singleminded survivor? A fast-footed gazelle, employing speed and awareness to avoid becoming lunch for some tiger? Or a Portuguese man-of-war - which is not an animal, but a colony of mutually dependent organisms?

Organizations that lack integrity have problems. Much of the energy of their employees is wasted, spent on activities that do not move the organization toward its goals. Infighting, jockeying for position, avoiding responsibility-when employees do these things chronically, the business health of the organization is bound to suffer.

The animal model that best fits most organizations is, in fact, the Portuguese man-of-war. Organizations are made up of people, and regardless of how autocratically they may be run, people have minds of their own. They harmonize with each other, and with the goals of a group, only by choice-only when they believe it is in their interest to do so.

This should not be news to any manager or business or technical leader. Yet it is amazing how many organizations are still run on the basis of a primitive understanding of the work contract: We pay you, so you must do what you are told. That arrangement obviously works, but not very well. It does not produce an organization that has integrity.

Why is that? Because people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as the Declaration of Independence states with crystal clarity.

What is an "unalienable right"? It is a right that, if denied to a person, renders them less than human. It is a right that is not granted by a government or any organization, but simply acknowledged to inhere in humans.

Any organization that does not respect those rights in its employees creates insuperable difficulties, working conditions that no-one can long endure. Successful organizations respect the unalienable rights of all their members.

On the simplest level, that means the organization does not require the employee, except by careful and conscious agreement, to hazard their life in the performance of their duties. Nor will it curtail the employee's liberty unreasonably, nor prevent him or her from pursuing their personal fulfillment.

On a more refined level, the successful organization recognizes the individual as an individual, and nurtures his or her humanity.

So if we know this about successful organizations, why are there so many horrible ones? Why do so many employers ignore the humanity of their staffs?

A wealth of business and organizational literature addresses these questions (including my own Structure is Destiny: The Dandelion Principle - I would like to suggest that one of the main reasons for this state of affairs is that we do not apply the growing body of systems thinking knowledge and practice to organizations-and most unreasonably, especially to engineering and manufacturing organizations, many of which use systems engineering in their work.

What's a system? A consensus of INCOSE (International Council on Systems Engineering) Fellows says:

A system is a construct or collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the elements alone. The elements, or parts, can include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents; that is, all things required to produce systems-level results. The results include system-level qualities, properties, characteristics, functions, behavior, and performance. The value added by the system as a whole, beyond that contributed independently by the parts, is primarily created by the relationship among the parts; that is, how they are interconnected (Rechtin, 2000) (

Most organizations are not managed with "system consciousness." Instead, they are treated as a collection of simple cause-and-effect connections, where for a given stimulus, there is only one possible response.

But organizations are, in fact, systems, and can only be successfully run as such. If yours is, you are certainly blessed. If not, what can you do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn about systems. The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge, is a good place to start. Another good systems primer is The Goal, by Ely Goldratt and Jeff Fox.
  • Talk up systems among your colleagues, your superiors, your subordinates. Introduce systems terminology to your project teams.
  • Propose constructive changes to the organization, backed up by systems reasoning.

If you don't see your organization and its sub-organizations as systems, you will never understand why things are the way they are. A famous saying among systems practitioners is, "Every system is perfectly designed to get precisely the results it gets." If you want different results, you have to change the system.

It's not easy. But nothing else will be as effective.

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM Monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site:

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