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The Systems Approach to Management

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Are you becoming discouraged with your management efforts? Have you reached the point where adding effort does not seem to make any difference and you are still overworked? Have you noticed that the literature doesn’t seem to be much help? Stay tuned, relief may be on its way.

I talked myself into my first management job about 35 years ago without having any education or experience in management.  I became manager of the Control and Electronics Department at Luz in Jerusalem, Israel, and organization that was developing the control and electronics system for the world’s first commercial solar fuelled electricity generation system. I was a systems engineer, so instead of managing the project as recommended in the management literature, I treated the project as a system and systems engineered it. The outcome was that the control and electronics system was installed on time and within budget half way around the world in the Mohave Desert in California. So what, you ask?

A few years later, I took some management courses as part of a Master’s program at George Washington University and studied for and passed the Certified Manager® (CM®) exams. As I studied management, I realized that according to what I was being taught, the Luz project should have failed. Being curious, I researched the topic and after 15 years, figured out why the project succeeded. It succeeded because I used the systems approach.  Had I managed the project according to the literature, it would have failed.

During the course of my research, I noticed that not only was the literature incomplete in some places, it was also wrong (which took me a while to accept). For example:

  1. The literature focused on planning and organizing as management functions, yet most of a manager’s time is spent controlling a project or workflow, where the manager has to deal with situations where reality diverges from the plan.
  1. A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is often used as an input tool in planning to capture the activities to be done on a project. This can result in missing activities and differences between the WBS and the Product Breakdown Structure (PBS).
  1. The education of managers and systems engineers focused on memorization and process instead of principles, critical thinking and problem-solving. Peter Drucker wrote, “Throughout management science, in the literature as well as in the work in progress, the emphasis is on techniques rather than on principles, on mechanics rather than on decisions, on tools rather than on results, and, above all, on the efficiency of the part rather than on the performance of the whole” (Drucker, 1973) page 509). This has held true for the last 40 years.

On the systems approach to management, Drucker wrote, “Full realization of the systems concept in manufacturing is years away.  It may not require a new Henry Ford, but it will certainly require very different management and very different managers” (Drucker, 1993) page 315). It is time for Drucker’s alternative paradigm. The systems approach is a holistic approach and overcomes most of the defects in the current paradigm. Are you up to the challenge of the systems approach? This version of the systems approach builds on the literature and treats the project as two interdependent systems:

  1. the process (that produces the product), and
  2. the product.

I teach project management, innovation, systems thinking and systems engineering at the post graduate and continuing education levels, where I often hear myself telling students “and you won’t find that in the text books”. This blog is planned as the first in a series of blogs and short videos (less than 15 minutes) to augment the literature and introduce both the systems approach to management and the tools and techniques it uses. Much of the content will be from my classes.

The first video can be viewed at:


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