Systemically Non-Systemic: COVID-19 through the Deming Lens

Guest blog post by Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership at Drake University

These are unprecedented times. For those in my generation (baby boomers), this is likely the most significant life-altering event that has occurred in our country during our lifetimes. My parents experienced and survived both the Great Depression and World War II. In many ways, my generation has had it relatively “easy” by comparison, although some might propose that the Vietnam War (due to its duration and polarizing effects) and the 9/11 attacks might rival COVID-19 in their paradigm-shifting impact. However, I would submit that since this virus has directly impacted the lives and habits of practically every American, it has had a far more reaching impact and, at this point in time, we still do not have any real sense of when and how it might end.

Today, the pandemic seems to have reached nearly every corner of our world. As of today, April 3, according to CNN there are 257,773 cases of the disease in the United States, with 6,586 reported deaths. What began with a handful of reported cases on the west coast has now spread to every state in our country ranging from 102,863 reported cases in New York to 147 in Alaska.

We are in serious times, of this there is no doubt. That said, the spread of COVID-19 is a powerful example of Dr. Deming’s “Appreciation for a System,” one of the four components of his System of Profound Knowledge. A knowledge of his systems approach provides a framework to help us understand how a pandemic such as we are experiencing occurs and even perhaps how it might be addressed.

A system is a whole with interrelated parts that work to achieve the aim of the system. Implicit in this definition is the concept of interdependent relationships. In other words, the parts of the system are connected to one another both explicitly and implicitly. These connections are also part of the human socio-cultural system. Evidence of this can be found in many examples, including the spread of COVID-19. If humans were not “interconnected,” one might argue the spread of the virus would never have occurred. Rather, it would have remained with one single person or a single group of people and never stretched further. This, as we know, is not the case with COVID-19, for it spread from its origin across the entire planet.

For better or for worse, it seems we cannot escape the interconnectedness of our human family. According to researcher/writer/speaker Brené Brown, we are “hard wired” to connect with other human beings (60 Minutes, March 29, 2020). This concept is reinforced by Mark Buchanan in his 2007 book entitled The Social Atom. In it he writes that, “…our prosocial disposition and our noblest altruistic tendencies have deep roots in the physics of self-organization and are probably responsible for our species’ unparalleled success…” (p. 116). Buchanan goes on to write, relative to humankind’s hunter-gatherer ancestors, that “There were no governments in those days, yet these groups depended utterly on unfailing cooperation for their existence – to gather food, to hunt big animals, and to defend themselves against other groups” (p. 134). We are the product of thousands of generations who cooperated with one another and “won out in the harsh struggle for existence, while our more self-interested cousins in the distant past failed to cooperate and died out as a result” (p. 134).

We cannot escape the interconnectedness of our world, for according to writer/teacher/speaker Dr. Margaret Wheatley, “In the quantum world, relationships are not just interesting; to many physicists, they are all there is to reality” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 34). She goes on to write, “In quantum physics, a homologous process is described as relational holism, where whole systems are created by the relationships among subatomic particles” (p. 111). In short, whether it be through observable human behavior, the history of our ancestors, brain research, or physics, interrelationships may be the fundamental structure on which our world is built and sustains itself.

I certainly do not claim to be an expert in human behavior, brain research, or physics. Nor am I an epidemiologist. However, I think we can gain a rudimentary grasp of how COVID-19 spreads though an understanding of systems and through the work of Malcom Gladwell. In his 2002 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big difference, his chapter entitled “The Law of the Few” provides a background on how epidemics spread. Gladwell cites the work of Stanley Milgram’s “Small world experiment,” intended to answer the question, “How are human beings connected?” Gladwell asks, “Do we all belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously…” or “…are we bound up together in a grand interlocking web?” (p. 34). Milgram’s experiment focused on how many steps it would take for people living in Omaha, Nebraska to send a packet and have it delivered to a certain stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. If the original sender actually knew the stockbroker in Boston, the letter could be sent directly. If not, they would think of a friend or relative who they thought might know that individual, or at least could get the package moving in that direction. As it turns out, it typically took five or six steps for the package to make its way from the original subject to its final destination. Milgram’s work in this experiment is where the concept of “six degrees of separation” originates, and it dramatically highlights socio-cultural interdependence. While Gladwell points out that some individuals play a greater role in the spread of social epidemics (he refers to them as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen), Milgram’s study seems to reinforce the significant influence of social networks as they relate to the spread of epidemics of any type, which would include COVID-19.

The impact of COVID-19 has both direct and indirect implications. Directly, the spread of the virus started with a few people and has now impacted the health of over 250,000 people and counting in the United States alone. However, the virus is obviously wreaking indirect havoc on other systems as well, including our healthcare system and economy, and it has the potential to disrupt even more systems. For example, last week I was listening to a local radio program focused on farming. The host of the show asked one of the guests, the state’s Secretary of Agriculture, to reconfirm that supply lines for agriculture will remain intact during this pandemic; the fear is that the pandemic will negatively impact agriculture and food systems. This is just one more example of how interrelated our world is and the impact COVID-19 is having on systems indirectly related to people’s health.

A significant question right now centers around what to do about COVID-19. Again, I do not propose to have a solution, but would offer some general thoughts, based on the concept of a “systemic non-systemic approach.”

In his work on the “Theory of Constraints,” Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt describes a constraint as “the limiting factor that prevents a system from moving closer to achieving its goal.” If we think of COVID-19 as a system whose purpose is to replicate itself and spread by delivering its DNA or RNA into host cells, then a constraint would be anything that prevents or slows that from happening. Dr. Goldratt offers five focusing steps to mitigate constraints and facilitate ongoing improvement in organizations. These steps include:

  1. Identify the constraint
  2. Exploit the constraint
  3. Subordinate everything else to the constraint
  4. Elevate the constraint
  5. Prevent inertia from becoming the constraint

In the case of COVID-19, we might consider adapting these five steps in a manner intended to stop its transmission, or its aim, by exploiting (or amplifying) the constraint to the virus’ detriment. This might be accomplished by:

  1. Identifying a constraint that may reduce/eliminate the spread of COVID-19
  2. Exploiting the constraint – in other words use the constraint to its fullest to stop the spread
  3. Subordinating everything else to the constraint. In short, as much as possible, all other activities in our lives are subordinated to strengthening the constraint that will stop the virus. By doing so, we:
  4. Elevate the constraint in a manner that, short of finding a medical cure to the virus, elevates its strengthening above all other actions
  5. Not letting our own lack of inertia around our actions (such as not practicing social distancing) become the problem itself

There is a systems simulation entitled “Fishbanks,” designed to teach systems concepts, that I use in one of my graduate courses at Drake University. In this simulation students are divided into separate fishing companies and are given one simple goal: “Maximize your assets.” As each individual group works to maximize its own assets, little attention is paid to the fact that there is a limited number of fish (a resource each company shares) and the reproduction rate is based on how many fish are living in the system. After several rounds of the simulation, the sum total of each fishing company’s catch ultimately results in overfishing, and the system, along with every company, collapses. What would cause the system to remain intact is for teams/companies to connect with one another and act as one decision-making unit. In other words, the individual groups need to behave as one indivisible whole to sustain the system and promote individual and group gain.

What I am describing is somewhat of the antithesis of the Fishbanks approach to survival. It is an effort where we (humans in our socio-cultural system) collectively commit to breaking our connections; in other words, our “systemness.” We collectively commit to behave as individuals both for personal gain and the good of the system as a whole.

This type of action is now known as “social distancing.” It is, ironically, a systemically non-systemic approach. It is systemic in the fact that it is a treatment that must be applied across our entire system (nation/world). It is non-systemic because it is asking people to disconnect physically from the social system and physically isolate themselves from other human beings. In other words, it is collectively promoting individuals to act individually for the health of each individual and the entire system.

It seems counterintuitive that a systems approach be operationalized to eliminate or lessen physical and social interdependency between the “parts” of a system. However, without such an approach, in which an interdependent collective chooses to temporarily break its connections, there seems little hope, short of a medical cure, to stem the tide of COVID-19 or any other pandemic that may besiege us.

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Buchanan, M. (2007). The Social Atom: Why the rich get richer, cheaters get caught, and your neighbor usually looks like you. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

Cooper, D., Petersen, A., & Quinn, B. (Hosts). (2020). The Big Show. [Radio Broadcast]. Des Moines: WHO Radio.

Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point: How little things a make a big difference. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.

Hernandez, S., Manley, B., O’Key, S., Pettersson, H., & Watts, A. (2020, April 2). Tracking COVID-19 Cases in the US. Retrieved from

Theory of Constraints Institute. Retrieved April, 2020 from

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Whitaker, B. (Correspondent). (2020). Brené Brown on vulnerability and courage. [60 Minutes television series episode]. R. Hartman, (Producer). New York: CBS News.

1 thought on “Systemically Non-Systemic: COVID-19 through the Deming Lens”

  1. Such an insightful look into the systemically non-systemic approach! After reading part of “The Fifth Discipline”, by Peter Senge I’m beginning to learn the impact that a systems approach has not only to schools but also to our world. I really enjoyed the profound thinking that in order to benefit the system, in an odd way, we do have to distance the system. Thinking about our world now, in what way are we continuing to facilitate systems in our everyday lives despite the barrier of distance in smaller systems? In my opinion, the “Fishbanks” approach to our worldview is a learned approach to how we function in our everyday lives since the pandemic has occurred. Prior to this pandemic, I’m not sure if we functioned quite the same. Thinking about supporting the needs of the whole to better support our future system was less of a worry for many people previously. Individuals were more focused on their locus of control than the systemic view. Thanks for the in-depth look on this thinking! It was an enjoyable read with many take aways!

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