The Mother of Modern Management:

A nice overview of the contribution of Lillian Gilbreth.
Just barely, perhaps, systems, but worth considering.

See also:
Lillian Gilbreth: The Forgotten Mother of Modern Management

The Tale of Taylor and Gilbreth

Harish's Notebook - My notes... Quality, Data Science, Strategy & Lean.


Today (May 8, 2016) is Mother’s day.  In today’s post I will be writing about somebody who has been called “the mother of modern management”, and “America’s First Lady of Engineering”, in addition to several additional similar titles.

She was known as “Mother” for several things – “Mother of the Year” (1957), “Mother of Industrial Psychology” (1954), “Mother of Modern Management” and “the greatest woman engineer in the world” (1954). (Source: Digging History)

Many of her concepts and ideas lend really well to the Toyota Production System. I will be looking at Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the wife of Frank Gilbreth. The Gilbreths were famous for the time and motion studies, and were most likely the first successful management consultant couple. Lillian did not study Engineering at school. She had a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Literature, and a Doctoral degree in Psychology. Frank Gilbreth did not attend college, although…

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Forum for the Future | Systems change field building convening

Source: Forum for the Future | Systems change field building convening


In June 2018, we co-convened an event on Wasan Island, Canada, bringing together practitioners, academics, funders to explore together how we might work together to build the field of systems change.

In the context of growing use of the term “systems change” and increasing interest in systemic approaches to address some of the world’s most complex challenges, we co-convened a retreat in June 2018 bringing together practitioners, academics, funders to explore together how we might work together to build the field of systems change.

Pathways to building the field

In the run-up to the retreat, we asked people attending and unable to attend to offer their definitions of systems change, and of field-building. In June we spent three days on Wasan Island, Canada, with a group of 25 people exploring pathways to building the field. These pathways are interlocking, mutually supportive routes from where we are today to a desired future. They form a nested hierarchy, with the “Stewardship” pathway supporting the other four, which together contribute to cultivating systems change practice in service of our collective purpose.

Download our full write-up of the retreat here:

Systems change: a field building convening

Improvisation Blog: Stafford Beer’s Critical Holism in Education – Mark Johnson

Source: Improvisation Blog: Stafford Beer’s Critical Holism in Education

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Stafford Beer’s Critical Holism in Education

I gave a presentation about how Stafford Beer’s work relates to education to a small group of people from the education faculty at Cambridge last week. I wanted to avoid presenting Beer’s work as a kind of fait-accompli, where the Viable System Model (VSM), or Syntegration is the answer (I think this kind of evangelism is very off-putting). But his work is mind-blowing, and if he didn’t “have the answer”, he certainly had an important way of asking questions in a very practical way which is sorely missing from anything in the educational discourse today.

The problems – the reasons why the VSM or Syntegration isn’t the answer – or indeed, any other cybernetic theory cannot provide a full answer – are that fundamental problems of time, meaning, emergence, non-ergodicity and coherence haven’t been resolved in any of the systems sciences. This is why, for example, the question of agency in cybernetic descriptions is such a problematic question: “where’s the person? They’re in the recursions”, which leads to a slight air of dissatisfaction. We can work to improve this situation – but this will only happen with a critical engagement with cybernetics.

This is not to take anything away from Beer. He nailed what he was doing and what cybernetics is really about: “Cybernetics is about holism”. Yes. There are of course many many definitions of cybernetics, which describe it as “ways of thinking”, or “ways of thinking about ways of thinking”, “the art and science of defensible metaphors” (!), or “the science of effective organisation” – it all gets rather philosophical, giving a newcomer the feeling that they’ve arrived in some kind of cult. But, in the end, what unite them all is that they all deal with wholes. They all run counter to reductionism.

Holism has a bad name. It is rather closely associated with cults, with theories of everything. But this isn’t what Beer meant. He was after (and indeed possessed) a science of holism (notwithstanding the problems raised above). If it is wholes we have to grapple with, and not parts, then we need to know how wholes work – and they are not simple things, but once opened out, they reveal a structure. It is this structure which can be studied and experimented with.

The structure unfolds because whatever whole is considered contains things which cannot be decided. Beer calls these “undecidables”. I have recently preferred simply to talk about uncertainty. The point is that this uncertainty has to be dealt with, and by definition, it cannot be dealt with within the “whole”. So any whole requires a metasystem – something which sits outside the whole and mops up the uncertainty. It does it, often, by imposing categories for dealing with the uncertainty. It’s the metasystem where the reductionism goes on!

Beer knew that there were good and bad ways in which the relationship between a whole and a metasystem could work. If education is seen to be a “whole”, then the metasystem has to mop up things like uncertainties over teacher and student “performance”: it invents categories and metrics to measure teaching and learning. It even ties some of these metrics to the pay or job security of teachers. More recently it deploys technologies to reinforce these metrics. What happens? “explosive complexification”.

Why do these uncertainties arise in the first place? What is it about the whole which invites pathological metasystemic regulation? There’s a simple answer to this. It is the hierarchical structures of organisation which education adopts. These structures themselves are very poor at mopping up their own uncertainty: hierarchies attenuate complexity from their bottom to their top, and from the environment to each individual. The only mechanism they have for managing uncertainty is authoritarianism, and this eventually leads to collapse.

What is required are forms of organisation which manage their uncertainty effectively. In education, the most effective way any individual – whether teacher or learner – can manage their uncertainty is to talk to others: “What do you think?” The best form of educational organisation is one which creates the conditions for conversation. Here, Beer’s holism suggests that the way to do this is to disrupt the metasystems of each individual. This is really what he attempted with his Syntegration technique. It’s what Von Foerster articulated when he spoke about education’s role in learning to ask “legitimate questions”, or questions to which nobody knows the answer:

  1. “Education is neither a right nor a privilege: it is a necessity.”
  1. “Education is learning to ask legitimate questions.”

A society who has made these two discoveries will ultimately be able to discover the third and most utopian one:

  1. “A is better off when B is better off.” (Von Foerster, Understanding Understanding, p209)

Understanding how Von Foerster gets from 2 to 3 is core to appreciating the power of Beer’s Critical Holism.

What can Social Systems Theory bring to the VSM? | strategic structures – Ivo Velitchkov


Source: What can Social Systems Theory bring to the VSM? | strategic structures


What can Social Systems Theory bring to the VSM?

In 2015, when the Metaphorum was in Hull, I tried to kick off a discussion about potential contributions from cognitive science, and particularly from the Enactive school. I shared some insights and hinted at other possibilities. This year the Metaphorum conference was in Germany for the first time. It was organised by Mark Lambertz and hosted by Sipgate in Düsseldorf. I saw in the fact that the Metaphorum was in Germany a good opportunity to suggest another combination, this time with the Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann.

These are the slides from my talk and here you can also watch them with all animations.

The unmarked state – Laws of form 50th Anniversary Conference August 8-10, 2019, Liverpool UK

Source: LOF50

The Conference

2019 marks 50 years since George Spencer-Brown’s book, Laws of Form was first published; 50 years since Heinz von Foerster’s influential review in The Last Whole Earth Catalogue first appeared, describing it as a Twentieth Century transistorized power-driven equivalent of Occam’s razor; 50 years since Stafford Beer reviewed it in Nature, stating he suspected he was reviewing ‘a work of genius’, a view shared by Lancelot Law Whyte, who described it as such in his book, The Universe of Experience: A Worldview Beyond Science and Religion, adding, ‘I recommend to all interested in the frontiers of the intellect the introduction and notes to Laws of Form.’ In The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, he stated, ‘I still consider, on re-examining this book after a two-year interval, that it is a work of genius … One is aware of contact with a mind of high originality’.

In that space of 50 years, the book, which to many seemed to mix mathematics and mysticism, has influenced major developments in mathematics, humanities, logic, philosophy, systems theory, and sciences.

The Unmarked State Laws of Form 50th anniversary conference celebrates the work of author and polymath, George Spencer-Brown, 1923-2016 and reviews the past, present, and future of his attempt to rethink creation from first principles, his influence on Kauffman, Luhmann, von Foerster, Varela, and others, and questions what might develop out of Spencer-Brown’s work in the next fifty years.

The Unmarked State Laws of Form 50th anniversary conference is a celebratory cross-disciplinary gathering which will be of interest to mathematicians, philosophers, sociologists, cyberneticists, designers, and all those interested in how to create a world from nothing.

Dates & Location

August 8-10, 2019.

Old Library, Liverpool University, 19 Abercromby Square L69 7ZN, UK.

Liverpool is reached by train to Lime Street, by air to Manchester or Liverpool Airports.

University car parks are nearby. There are many hotels in the vicinity, with options to suit every budget.

Call for Papers

The Unmarked State Laws of Form 50th anniversary conference is a celebratory cross-disciplinary gathering which will be of interest to mathematicians, philosophers, sociologists, cyberneticists, designers, and all those interested in how to create a world from nothing.

The cross-disciplinary conference will review the influence that Laws of Form has had since its publication and its unexplored potential and explore the work of author and polymath, George Spencer Brown, 1923-2017. We aim to explore the past, present, and future of his attempt to rethink creation from first principles, his influence on Kauffman, Luhmann, von Foerster, Varela, and others; and question what might develop out of Spencer-Brown’s work in the next fifty years.

As with other academic conferences, the primary goal of LoF50 is for people to meet and interact.

Presentations of research connected to the work of George Spencer-Brown are invited in two forms:

  1. Regular papers

Every regular paper will have a 30-minute slot in the programme, during which they are expected to give a 20 minute presentation and answer questions in person.

  1. Short presentations and workshops

These can be of a more fluid nature and give personal or artistic responses to the Laws of Form. Short presentations should be at about 20 minutes in length.

Workshop organisers please say how long they might require.

Cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches are encouraged.

Please send a 200-word abstract of your proposal to the committee by noon on the 11th of March 2019. To submit a proposal, please use the submission page on EasyChair.

We intend to publish regular papers, where appropriate, in a special volume of the Series on Knots and Everything.

An account of the conference as a collection of abstracts and presentations will be circulated as an edited pdf.

Expressions of Interest

Please use the contact form on this website to request further information or express interest in contributing.

Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, C. West Churchman – Coevolving Innovations from David Ing


Source: Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, C. West Churchman – Coevolving Innovations


At U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s, Christopher AlexanderHorst Rittel and C. West Churchman could have had lunch together.  While disciplinary thinking might lead novices to focus only on each of pattern languagewicked problems and the systems approach, there are ties (as well as domain-specific distinctions) between the schools.

Circa 1968-1970: Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, West Churchman

Circa 1968-1970: Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, West Churchman

West Churchman joined Berkeley in 1957, and initiated master’s and doctoral programs in operations research at the School of Business Administration.   From 1964 to 1970, Churchman was associate director and research philosopher at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, directing its social sciences program.  After his retirement in 1981, Churchman taught in the Peace and Conflict Studies program for 13 years.

Horst Rittel came to the Berkeley College of Environmental Design in 1963, the same year that dean William Wurster recruited Christopher Alexander.  In 1973, Rittel split his time between Berkeley and the architecture faculty at the University of Stuttgart, where he founded the Institut für Grundlagen der Planung.

Christopher Alexander became a cofounder of the Center for Environmental Structure at Berkeley in 1967, gradually moving outside of the university by 2000.

The tie between Churchman and Rittel are well-documented, in a 1967 article in Management Science.

Professor Horst Rittel of the University of California Architecture Department has suggested in a recent seminar that the term “wicked problem” refer to that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing. The adjective “wicked” is supposed the describe the mischievous and even evil quality of these problems, where proposed “solutions” often turn out to be worse than the symptoms. [p. B-141]

This idea of “wicked problems” would eventually be published by Rittel and Webber in 1973.

The ties between Christopher Alexander and West Churchman are more elusive, however.  In 1967, Alexander published “Systems Generating Systems” as part of an exhibit display.  In addition to the original article, Molly Steenson’s 2014 dissertationprovided historical context.  In a Facebook discussion threadHelene Finidori asked about where she might “find a synthetic critical view of Christopher Alexander’s work and it’s evolution, and potentially its contradictions too”.   I responded …

David Ing (April 16, 2017, 6:46pm) If you’re looking for the “synthetic, critical view of Christopher Alexander’s work and its evolution”, you’ve now already read them. Both Steenson and I read the original documents (back to the formation of the Center for Environmental Structure), and have used the content. There may be a few details in my dissertation, but if you really want to get to that level of detail, you’ll have to do the ground work, too. The “critical” part is the challenge, as it requires that the criticism take an opposing position. My position is based on the pursuit of service systems thinking, which may or may not be your position.

On “not so much about patterns themselves ….” Alexander doesn’t describe “pattern” as much as “pattern language”. This goes back to Notes on the Synthesis of Form, and then evolves from there. To catch the nuances, you’ll have to keep in mind that Alexander himself was learning the ideas, and what he wanted to say, so the words and meaning changed over time. Thus “quality without a name” because “unfolding structure” which became “unfolding wholeness”. (This last label comes from reading the later unpublished works at , when Alexander writes about a meeting with David Bohm.

When I was talking with Jim Coplien (AsianPLoP 2015), we discussed systems thinking. He has the right intuitions, but not necessary all of the “correct” language, because he hasn’t done graduate level studies of systems thinking. I would say the same is the case for Alexander, and members of the CES at Berkeley. Some of the graduate students went over to West Churchman’s seminar, but it wasn’t their primary field of study, so they weren’t totally immersed.

I try to be very specific about what I’m doing. I try to not use the word “pattern” by itself, because different people have different understandings of that. Even “pattern language” has risks, because at PLoP, I learned that the Gang of Four “Design Patterns” book actually slightly predates the Hillside Group formation (e.g. Ralph Johnson is sympathetic to Richard Gabriel, but came from different purposes at that time). In particular, “generative pattern language” is something that the Hillside Group purists are pursuing, while the technology-oriented developers are more concerned with abstractions of programming languages.

Helene responded with a question “about the relationship between the pattern and the system”, and Helmut Leitner thought this was “an interesting detail”.  I wrote:

David Ing (April 16, 2017, 7:19pm) Helene, to be clear, my research is on “pattern language”, and not on “pattern”. My work on “the systems sciences” — that’s plural, not singular — and more colloquially on “systems thinking” (largely because Russ Ackoff and contemporaries adopted that term to reflect both art and science) — and not on “systems”.

I’m sympathetic to Helmut seeking clarity in the use of terms. The reason that it took me 3 years (from PLoP 2014 through PUARL 2016, and in my 2017 dissertation) to get to this level of clarity is because I needed to make adjustments at the philosophical level that depart from Christopher Alexander’s concern on built environments. I’m not a building architect, and I work in social systems and information systems. Thus, I’ve shifted to ecological anthropology and the work of Tim Ingold, where the meaning of affordances originated by J.J. Gibson (and mangled by Don Norman, for later self-correction) was made clear. This led to my final act of information-gathering for my dissertation, with a diversion to the IFIP WG8.2 meeting in Dublin in December 2017 to listen and speak directly with Tim Ingold.

The pattern as “solution to a problem in context” doesn’t work for me, because, as Russ Ackoff says, we work in systems of problems (i.e. problematiques, messes), which require systems of solutions. This is somewhat similar to Alexander’s resolution of “forces”, which is mystical to most people. The systems thinking foundations might have been better elicidated if the Alexander camp had gone across campus at Berkeley in the 1970s to discuss with Horst Rittel on wicked problems, and West Churchman on the systems approach. Those graduate students are now in their retirements, so if we want to make those bridges, we’ll have to make haste to draw on their memories, and/or build them ourselves.

In seeking out history, I had previously read the blog of Thorbjoern Mann (and Abbé Boulah).   On Nov. 14, 2014, Thor had written “A personal note on Pattern Language applications in other fields“, on Alexander and Rittel, including:

Both Alexander and Rittel were teaching at Berkeley when I was there as a graduate and then postgraduate student, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Both belonged to the ‘design methods’ movement, a group of people who tried to remedy what was widely seen as a lack of research and adaptation of the new ‘space age’ insights in architecture and urban design and planning. They tried to bring ideas and tools from operations research, the emerging computer applications and systems studies to bear on architecture and planning. However, Alexander dramatically disassociated himself from that group, after a first disappointing attempt at devising a computer program to produce architectural designs. [4] He then focused on his ambitious pattern language project. This was seen as a move philosophically opposing the methods and systems efforts — efforts whose early applications in the sociopolitical arena had seen some spectacular failures.

That specific blog post led to a back-and-forth exchange in the comments sectionbetween Thor and myself.

On Sept. 12, 2016, Thor expanded that exchange into a blog post on the three professors at Berkeley, in “Alexander, Churchman, Rittel: A Fog Island Tavern Conversation“, including:

– Yes, I remember: Alexander’s Pattern Language for Environmental Design; Rittel’s Wicked Problems and Argumentative Model of Planning and information systems. They were both teaching at the College of Environmental Design. But Churchman was in the Business School, working on his Systems Approach books and research, wasn’t he? So somebody wants to reconcile those different perspectives? For what purpose? Isn’t that a bit of old history? Haven’t all those disciplines evolved into new conundrums by now?

Thus, to my delight, the Facebook thread led to an additional first-person account from Thor, as a former Teaching Assistant (TA) for Rittel:

Thor Mann (April 17, 2017, 11:19pm) David, just a response to your comment on the relationship between Alexander, Churchman, and Rittel in the ’60s and ’70s (from one of those guys that are now in retirement):

Both Alexander and Rittel were part of what at the time was called the ‘design methods’ movement in architecture, worked and taught in the same building, and did talk and were seen walking off to have lunch together. Churchman was teaching in the Business School a few minutes down on the way to the center of campus.

The problem was (as I perceived it, having come to Berkeley from a ‘systems building’ as well as methods interest, working with Rittel) that a part of that movement was trying to learn from the OR/systems approach that had been working and writing for some time already — Churchman’s and Ackoff’s books were on the design methods reading list. Alexander seemed to veer off his early general systems-based investigations by his fascination with the linguistic ideas of Chomsky, and some early attempts to use the computer to generate architectural designs that did work as well as he expected (at the time, as Rittel’s TA, working in a common space with all the other TA’s, I listened to the frustration of Alexander’s TA’s about that project). So he turned to the Pattern Language project, and in a dramatic statement in the ‘Design Methods Journal’ proclaimed a philosophical break with the design methods and ‘systems’ movement. (This resonated well with many Berkeley students at the time for whom the ‘System’ was THE big bad enemy…)

Rittel was working on different tasks somewhat remote from actual building design: information systems for design and planning. For these, he found it necessary to first work out a clearer understanding of the design process, how designers think, and design and planning problems. His answers were: the ‘argumentative model’ of design and planning, the concept of ‘issue based information systems’ for design, and the concept of ‘wicked problems’ that clarified why the ‘first (OR-based) generation’ of systems approach for design and planning were inadequate to deal with these ‘messes’, as Ackoff had come to call them, and that led Churchman to his version of the systems approach that I think was not widely adopted by the stalwart systems folks elsewhere. (Systems consultants working for corporate clients had to promise more concrete results on time and budget to get contracts, than were warranted e.g. by wicked problem properties… )

There was enough work for everybody to be done on all emerging facets of these ideas — the ‘wicked problems’ insights that provided an important basis for the call for wide participation in design (architectural programming) and planning; the development of programs and applications for the fast-developing computer technology are just examples. Rittel’s argumentative model, focusing on the ‘unprecedented’ (wicked) aspects of design projects, was not widely adopted by architectural practice and teaching — architecture was and is, after all, so constrained by traditional expectations, ‘good design’ canons and building regulations as well as the limitations of available building materials and technology, that any truly unprecedented problems were easily sidestepped by resorting to precedent, client preferences, and great designers’ creativity imperative to produce ‘new’ and ‘different’ solutions to ‘challenge users’ preconceptions’.

Besides my part in developing the argumentative model with my efforts to develop more transparent approaches to evaluate design and planning arguments, and to include these in a better ‘planning discourse support’ platform and process, my questions about the Pattern Language led me to articulate a ‘way of talking about architecture that focused on users and viewers’ ‘occasions’ or experiences in the built environment as the elements of both programming and design work, and on the ‘images’ evoked by built environment in users’ minds. I saw this as contributions to both architectural programming, design, and — by exploring it in combination with the issue of building economics to develop an approach to the question of value of built environment — an effort that comes close to offering insights and measurements into the part of quality of life influenced by the built environment.

These are just personal examples of how the ideas of Alexander, Churchman and Rittel have influenced my further work; I am sure that other people from that time have similar stories to tell. In my opinion, the current efforts devoted to exegesis of what these thinkers and the terms they proposed ‘really’ meant, — and to make that a ‘science’ — should focus more on formulating a clear agenda of the work that still needs to be done, about half a century later. Those are tasks of design, strategy, articulating visions, more than science (this should not be seen as emphasizing design as fundamentally ‘different’ from science; science-based and generated knowledge is one of the essential pillars of design — one of the key premises of deign and planning arguments.)

In my writings, e.g ‘Abbe Boulah’ blog (one post specifically about the relationship between CA, WC and HR) and a number of papers posted on, as well as some threads in the LI and FB systems community, I have made some efforts of sketching out some priority issues for that task. The task deserves a more coherent and sustained framework and process than the format of these platforms currently facilitates. It is also somewhat different from many of the contributions in these networks that focus, quite understandably, on learning more about consulting practices and approaches aim at bringing in consulting contracts.

This first-person account of a former graduate student at Berkeley in the 1970s complements the general history of science that has been written by each of the figures individually.  Practically half a century later, there may be an opportunity not only to deepen our appreciation of each of these researchers as independent thinkers, but benefit through common struggles that they might have shared informally, towards new generative theories.


Churchman, C. West. 1967. “Wicked Problems.” Management Science 14 (4): B-141-B-146. doi:10.1287/mnsc.14.4.B141.

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4 (2): 155–169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730.

Composite image derived from:

   October 14th, 2017

 Posted In: pattern languagesystems



Systems Thinking Ontario – 2018-11-21 – Wicked Problems, Systems Approach, Pattern Language

Source: Systems Thinking Ontario – 2018-11-21

November 21 is the 62nd monthly meeting for Systems Thinking Ontario. The registration is on Eventbrite.

Wicked Problems, Systems Approach, Pattern Language

At U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s, Horst Rittel (originator of “Wicked Problems“), C. West Churchman (luminary in the Systems Approach) and Christopher Alexander (leading Pattern Language) led graduate programs. Doctoral students flowed across departments to their seminars and workshops.

Many of those alumni are the core of the PUARL (Portland Urban Architecture Research Laboratory) and Purplsoc (Pursuit of Pattern Languages for Social Change) communities.

David Ing led workshops at the Purplsoc conference in October 2017, and PUARL conference in October 2018, with the aim of regenerating some of the ties that were lost in the 1970s.

Come participate in an informal, unrehearsed conversation about commonalities and distinctions across these three bodies of work. In the interest of open communications, the conversation will not be recorded, and the Chatham House rule will apply.

David Ing is a systems change researcher, and one of the cofounders of Systems Thinking Ontario. He is a past-president (2011-2012) of the International Society for the Systems Sciences.


Suggested pre-reading:

David will refer to the following artifacts:


Time Activity Role(s)
6:30 Self-introductions  (15 seconds each)
  • Introduce yourself and briefly tell us about interests, experiences or affiliations related to systems thinking.
  • How did learn about this Systems Thinking Ontario session?
Convenor:  David Ing
6:45 Stepping through the readings  (as entry points)
  • What’s going on in these workshops?
Reviewer: All attendees
8:10 Process reflection
  • What went well in this meeting?
  • What should be discuss in the next meeting?
Suggestions welcomed
8:15 Adjourn
  • Optionally, join other attendees to continue discussion over dinner and/or drinks at a nearby restaurant
  • We prefer a venue that is quiet, reasonably priced and spacious enough for our continued conversations.
  • Typically, when we meet at 100 McCaul, we walk up to Baldwin Street; when we meet at 205 Richmond, we walk up to Queen Street West.
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