Don Knapp
Building a Quality Culture


Home | Biography | Articles | Contact | Testimonials

"Any social system consists of (1) people and (2) non-human resources (3) grouped together into subsystems that (4) interrelate among themselves and (5) with the external environment and (6) are subject to certain values and (7) a central guidance system that may help provide the capacity for future performance."

Bertram Gross, Former Harvard University professor and former Secretary,
U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, in his book State of the Nation


By Don Knapp

Systems thinking is crucial to solving problems in the 21st century but most people are not used to this perspective.

Holistic or systems thinking holds that organizations and communities function not as independent elements (silos) but as a dynamic and complex web in which they interact with each other and their environment. It has been practiced since at least Leonardo’s time, according to Michael Gelb (How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci). A system includes stakeholders—those directly or indirectly affected by the actions of an organization or community.

My education as a systems thinker began on field trips with my older architect brother Robert Knapp, chief designer of New York’s Madison Square Garden and Boston’s 30-acre Prudential Center. Unlike many architects who consider their building but not the elements of its site, landscape architect Deane Rundell, who worked on the site plan for the Xerox corporate headquarters when Bob designed the building, said “Bob considered the building and the site as part of the same total plan.”

The thinking of MIT computer modeler Jay Forrester (Urban Dynamics), urban critic Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), architect and city planner Victor Gruen (The Heart of Our Cities), quality guru Edwards Deming (Out of the Crisis), writer William Whyte (Cluster Development), Ian McHarg (Design With Nature), Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (The Wisdom of Teams), Jeffrey Liker (The Toyota Way), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) and others persuaded me that problems can best be solved with a systems perspective and cross-functional teams.

I was also influenced by my interviews of systems thinkers including:

John Evans, Professor of Business, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and former board chair of the Baldrige National Quality Improvement Awards: “Organizations that have developed a natural conceptual foundation that recognizes and strengthens linkages are qualitatively different from those from those organizations that treat the various components of their approach to quality as nearly independent building blocks.”

John Adams, Professor of Geography, University of Minnesota, “A metropolitan area is a living organism. All parts are connected and changes in one part inevitably stimulate later change in other parts…It’s hard for people to believe that something that happens here and now affects events at later times and other places.”

Richard Bradley, Executive Director, Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District and former President, International Downtown Association: “While few people think about downtown as a system much less talk about it as such, the way in which some organizations are growing their downtown proves it is. In fact, it may be more appropriate to describe the downtown as a comprehensive system that encompasses an interconnected set of system elements, i.e. retail, housing, access, etc.”

Now we have the biggest challenge of the 21st Century—the need to achieve sustainability—the balancing of economic, environmental and social needs for present and future generations--through systems thinking and innovation.”


Home | Biography | Articles | Contact | Testimonials