The Starfish and the System

By Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of Drake Continual Improvement Network, Drake University

The “Starfish Story,” originally entitled “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eisley, is part of a 16-page essay of the same name. It is a beautiful story reminding us that every single person can make a difference, even if that difference impacts just one person. There are many variations of the original story, one of which goes like this:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed boy picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean.
Approaching the boy he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”
“Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up, and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die,” the boy replied.
The man laughed to himself and said, “Do you realize there are miles of miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference.”
After listening politely, the boy bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the surf. Then, he smiled at the man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”

This is indeed a beautiful story, and its message should not be diminished, for it is a powerful reminder of the positive impact one human being can have on others.  However, what if we examined this beautiful story through the lens of Dr. Deming’s “appreciation for a system?”

In the story, the boy picked up an individual starfish that was one of the hundreds that had been washed up on the shore by the surf and left stranded. It was an admirable and heartfelt effort by the boy, but in systems terms, he was applying a special cause solution to a common cause problem, the common cause being the surf that had stranded the starfish. Picking up and tossing an individual starfish back into the ocean was worthwhile and well-intended, but with a more systemic approach – applying a common cause solution to a common cause problem – the boy might have saved more starfish.

A common cause approach might have included several solutions, such as contacting beach authorities, who might have been able to use appropriate machinery to push the starfish back into the ocean. Or the boy could have sought out and enlisted the help of hundreds of people, who may have been strolling along the beach that day, to help put the starfish back into their natural environment.

The aim of this writing is not to disparage the kindness and goodwill of us as human beings who can and should do individual good deeds for others.  Rather, if examined through another lens, it can be a lesson about the need for leaders to understand the systems they lead and employ systemic approaches to systemic problems.  In such cases, the leader can become nearly “invisible” relative to others who enact the solution, for effective systems leaders do not come crashing onto the scene like a hero to save the day; a common theme that is still valued in our western culture. Rather, effective systems leaders often work behind the scenes to first understand the root cause or causes of a problem and then design a fundamental solution that is deployed by others.  At the end of the day, whenever and wherever the problem is resolved, the people who did the work are the ones we recognize, while the leader may be nowhere to be seen, for her work and leverage were far from where the action was happening.

No doubt, the boy in the story did not have the intention to be seen as a hero. Rather, he was simply doing a good deed for another. However, system leaders need avoid the pull to be cast into the spotlight, and rather focus on determining how to design or redesign the systems they lead in order to improve and/or address systemic problems that exist.

Let’s take another look at the starfish story through a systems lens:

One day an old man was walking along the beach, where he saw the shore littered with hundreds of starfish that had been washed ashore by the tide.  He then noticed a boy talking excitedly to numerous people on the beach. After a while, the boy disappeared into the crowd that had grown from just a few people to hundreds.  Each person from the crowd then began picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. At long last, all of the starfish had been returned to their natural environment.
As the crowd began to disperse, the old man began visiting with one of the individuals involved in saving the starfish.  “I was watching from afar and saw a young boy talking excitedly to many people on the beach,” said the old man.
“Yes,” said the woman.  “The boy was telling each of us of the plight of the hundreds of starfish and pleading with us to help them back into the ocean.  We all began doing as the boy had asked and in short order, the starfish were all back home.”
“What happened to the young boy?” asked the old man.
“I don’t know,” replied the woman.  “He simply got us organized, gave us direction, joined in the rescue, and then disappeared. When we finished, we all felt a deep sense of pride and joy in what we had accomplished.”

In addition to the important lesson for leaders to understand systems and how to lead them, there is another moral to this revised starfish story.  It is a quote borrowed from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and modified slightly to address the context of this writing, and is an important one for leaders to consider:

“A systems leader is best when people barely know he exists; and when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

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6 thoughts on “The Starfish and the System”

  1. Thank you for this article! This is really very informative for us. I agree with you totally. It gives some true and insightful information on the starfish and the system. Great blog to share!!

  2. As a school leader, it is important to understand systems and how all the parts of work together towards a common vision or goal. As discussed in the article, leaders need to be able to identify problems and find the root cause. Once the root cause is determined, leaders may experiment with solutions through the PDSA process. Many times the solutions are actions taken by the teachers, or as the article states, the people doing the work. This means that the teachers often get the recognition for the accomplishment or achieving the goal. The recognition of the problem and ideas for solutions is just as important as carrying out the actions. With a systems way of thinking, everyone works together but the leader may not get the recognition that they deserve.

    Knowing now what I know about systems way of thinking, I often find myself looking at situations within the school very differently than I used to. I now understand why principals cannot always take immediate action, because larger problems take longer to identify and gather data for. Sometimes the quick fixes do more harm than determining what is causing the problem and finding lasting solutions.

  3. The quote that really stood out to me was “A systems leader is best when people barely know he exists; and when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

    This made me think of the work of leaders. As a principal or a leader of a school, you aim to solve many problems in a school but need the help from your staff. A leaders job is to identify the problem, come up with a plan, and implement the plan. Just like the boy who organized the plan to save the starfish, the principal designs the plan but is not awarded when the problem is resolved and complete. The leader is behind the scene in the work but is overseeing it as it happens. A system needs a problem, plan to solve the problem, implementation of the plan, and continuation to keep the problem resolved.

  4. One of the most powerful lines in this article, for me, was “system leaders need avoid the pull to be cast into the spotlight, and rather focus on determining how to design or redesign the systems they lead in order to improve and/or address systemic problems that exist.” I think about the people that have been great leaders in my life and they truly are the ones that work effortlessly behind the scenes and don’t need to be “hero” or cast into the spotlight. It seems as if the ones that do appreciate the hero or spotlight role are not as well respected by the staff in which they lead. The first starfish story places some doubt into my future as a leader because sometimes we do things in hopes to make a big difference, when in reality it may not impact anything we’re doing. If we take the systems approach of the second starfish story, the doubts begin to fade as I look forward to becoming a leader and using the talents, support, assistance, etc. of the people I’ll be leading.

  5. I found myself thinking of how we can change a special cause into a regular cause depending on the situation. I like reading the different cases of the stories and how they were changed by just one change. I also agree with Emily that the leader is not the center of attention, but is behind the scene. I feel I can relate a special cause to my students in special education. They are the special cause with their needs being different that the typical students. Having a BIP is a special cause or at least I believe it is.

  6. My biggest take away from this story was that the leader does not always have to be front and center. If they are being effective, they should almost be invisble to the whole. It is seemless. He took a common cause problem and by looking through a systems lens, he could have found a common cause solution. This made me think of my own work as a music teacher. Each year, I prepare my students for a concert that consists of singing, dancing, and playing instruments. There is a system in place to pick out those songs/materials, teach the songs/materials, and perform the songs/materials on stage for families. I am the leader in my music space. If I did not prepare or had those parts in place, the students would crash and burn on the stage. A common problem we see is students struggling to get on stage and remain composed during performance. The solution is practice. We prepare and students know what to expect, so I can stand on the side of the stage letting the kids get the credit for their hard work. It is now about me. It is about the whole (the students). Maybe we would see some special causes through out the preparation process like students moving into the school the day before the concert or student breaks their foot and can’t stand on the risers, but we work through those special causes, find a solution, and trust the process and plan we put in place.

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