Peter Senge on the Creation of a Post-Industrial Theory and Practice of Education

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

On April 16-18, 1999, The Deming Institute hosted its annual spring conference in Tacoma, Washington, featuring keynotes from Russell Ackoff, Jamshid Gharajedaghi, and Tom Johnson.  I attended at the end of a family vacation, a mini-van roadtrip from our home in southern California, with earlier stops at Yosemite, the redwoods in northern California, and Portland.   From Tacoma, we headed to our last stop, San Francisco, where the timing worked well for me to attend a second conference, “Teaching for Intelligence,” with Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, as the opening keynote speaker.   The conference drew an audience of at least 500 in the auditorium with Peter, with several hundred more, including me, in an overflow room.

In this 80-minute lecture, which has recently been posted on YouTube, with Peter’s approval, by the Academy for Systems Change, he shared his reflections on ongoing efforts to transform education systems across the United States, offering an extensive series of parallels with his wide-ranging personal experiences with the visible and invisible obstacles facing business transformations.

Having attended the lecture and then re-experience it countless times since then, here are highlights of a most remarkable and timeless session which ends with Peter offering a tribute to Dr. Deming:

  • Peter spends most of his time working in businesses……trying to foster a degree of collaboration….trying to sustain deep and profound change….
  • Carl Rogers, “that which is most personal is most universal”
  • The system is out there….
  • What can we do…working against this massive thing called the system?
  • No one can ever show you the system…can you show it to me?
  • Feel the enormous forces pulling things back to where they used to be
  • There is a real simple notion of system which is kind of the cornerstone of what I’ve learned about the subject of systemic change…and that is when we say the word the system, what we really are talking about, although we usually do not know how to talk about it very rigorously, is a pattern of interdependency that we enact.    There is no system.   It’s purely an abstraction.   But, there are patterns of interdependency and they are created every day, every hour, every minute, through our thinking and through our actions.
  • Reflections on my experiences in the past 25 years, primarily in the world of business
  • Perhaps there some interesting implications
  • Creation of a post-industrial theory and practice of education
  • 20 to 25 years of efforts to transform the systemic nature of business operations…
  • Organizing around a few simple ideas…the world is a fragmented set of pieces…the drive to reinforce individualism…the “you” is an isolated individual.
  • Comments from Joseph, a South African worker, “they do not make me a person”
  • A human being, a “you,” only exists in relationships
  • The Zulu greeting, “hello,” meaning, “I see you”
  • Hard to know what fish talk about, but you can be damn sure it isn’t water.   It’s the water we live in.
  • Edgar Schein, “Culture are the assumptions we cannot see”
  • Three legs of the stool – reflectiveness, aspiration, and understanding complexity
  • Dr. Deming used to have a very simple way of saying this…our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people
  • Dr. Deming, on “Quality Management” practices in education… “You have no idea that you are attempting to apply for the revitalization of America’s education system, the system of management which has destroyed American enterprise”
  • Quote from Dr. Deming on the back jacket of first printing of The Fifth Discipline; “Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people.  The destruction starts with toddlers.   Gold stars.  Grades in school.  A prize for the best Halloween costume.  The destruction continues on up through universities and into work, where people are ranked.  Rewards for the one at the top, punishment for one at the bottom.  Management by Objective, incentive pay, business plans cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.
  • Learned from Dr. Deming; school and work are the same institution
  • We have no clue about what it actually means to try to bring about truly systemic or deep or profound change
  • All of our efforts are on the surface
  • It’s a common experience, we all went to the same school
  • Did you know about learning before you went to school?
  • Dr. Deming, “human beings are born with intrinsic motivation and joy in learning”
  • The drive to learn, the most fundamental drive in the human species is the drive to learn
  • We come into the world engaged in learning
  • What did we learn about learning in school?
  • School is about performing for someone else’s approval
  • What did we learn as kids in school about answers?
  • How do we actually learn?  By making mistakes.
  • We learn that learning is about getting right answers
  • Per Dr. Deming; the relationship between the student and the teacher is identically the same relationship as between the subordinate and the boss
  • Per Dr. Deming; nobody motivates anyone, except through fear
  • The prevailing system of management is not about learning, it’s about control; an industrial age notion of control; someone has to be in control
  • Most business corporations are basically pouring all the energy they can into sustaining, strengthening, tightening up, becoming yet more able to operate in the industrial mode…..and there are exceptions  (VISA, Toyota, and Interface (Carpets) will be highlighted)
  • Within Toyota there are no standardized measures for cost control
  • Dr. Deming’s photo hangs in the lobby of Toyota’s corporate headquarters in Japan,
  • Dr. Deming “Our system of organizing and managing in the industrial age has destroyed our people”
  • It has nothing to do with school.   It has nothing to do with business.  It has to do with a common set of assumptions and practices which are everywhere.
  • Why do companies reorganize so much?
  • Learners want to learn
  • No assessing, no learning
  • A tough challenge we face, but there’s some interesting stuff going on
  • The traditional system is us, it’s not them, it’s all the assumptions we’ve never examined
  • Why is it that industrial age systems have so much in common?  Is it a big organized effort?
  • The machine age and the aspiration for uniformity
  • Schools patterned after an assembly line
  • People do not learn at the same speed
  • We substitute speed of reasoning for understanding
  • Might it not be that we are caught up in a myth, a kind of set of assumptions, a way of seeing the world, which has given great coherence and has been very successful?   It’s only small problem is that it’s destroying our people and destroying our environment.
  • The measure is secondary to the learning
  • Creating measures and the phenomenon itself are two different features
  • David Bohm, “thought shapes reality”
  • The whole morning is a tribute to Deming

Enjoy it, again and again!

I have shared this video with countless seminar and workshop audiences, most often associated with introducing the Deming Philosophy.    Once, with Tom Johnson in the room, with fellow seminar attendees only knowing him as Tom Johnson, not “the” Tom Johnson as highly regarded by Peter in the video.   According to one fellow co-worker, the ensuing remarks from Tom, author of Profit Beyond Measure, were “cosmic.”   In other settings, I have also shared it with neighbors.    For those who are aware of Dr. Deming’s Philosophy, this video can be immensely inspiring.    I have seen it grab the attention of wide-ranging audiences, from individual contributors to senior executives, as the message is so powerful, including filled with hope.    Don’t be surprised to witness the ending leaving a few in tears.   Be prepared!   However, as a note of caution, I have shared it with groups who are unaware of the Deming Philosophy, without offering any initial explanation of the Deming Philosophy.  In such a setting, the message can be depressing, as it opens viewers to the prevailing system of management as it operates in schools.   For such audiences, being exposed to the prospects of harshness within this system, as Peter does so well, this video may trigger a feeling of helplessness.    Be prepared to share that there is great hope when leaders offer their guidance.     Read about the efforts of educators in our blogs and podcasts to learn how they are working to transform education systems through the Deming Philosophy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top