Creating high performing cultures requires a new way of thinking that in many ways is very different from how we have pursued quality management or continuous improvement.

Most management problem-solving and improvement has focused on problems and the root-causes of those problems, analyzing the causes, and developing highly specific solutions. It is a view that begins with big things and narrows the focus to smaller and more specific things. This is the well established Newtonian thought process of reducing problems to ever more narrow explanations, the “atomization” of the problem to its root cause. We have learned to derive satisfaction from this reductionism, finding specific causes, measuring them, making specific changes, and watching the data improve. This has served us well. As a result we drive more reliable cars and every other manufactured product is delivered at both lower cost and greater reliability.

But, this approach, as essential as it is, has significant limits when it comes to changing the culture of an organization. Some solutions will not be found by atomizing the problem, but rather by looking upward and outward to the larger laws of the corporate comsos.

Whole-system thinking looks up and out to understand the macro-system and to dream about major system breakthroughs. It asks questions about the big systems and their nature. It looks at all the interrelationships of a complex system and seeks strategic changes in that system. Focused problem-solving can never address the complexity of a whole system. It requires a complete paradigm shift from traditional problem solving. In short, if you engaged in quality improvement problem-solving within a dictatorship, you might improve the efficiency of the police, administration, etc. However, you would still have a dictatorship because the transformation to democracy cannot be found in the detailed causes of specific problems. That transformation requires looking upward and outward to primary principles and the nature of the system. This upward and outward view is whole-system thinking and it is required to put the slices of bread back together. You can’t create a whole loaf by dissecting each slice.

Many corporations are examining the role of the corporate center – why are functions centralized or decentralized? The answer to this has a dramatic impact on the culture of an organization and the answer will not be found in the details of specific problems. Rather, it requires examining core principles and assumptions. It requires evaluating the strategic ideas behind the role of corporate or central staff groups. In short, it requires deep thinking about the nature of the system, the interrelationship of the parts of the corporation.

Learning this skill is one of the new frontiers of managing the culture.