What can Goethe teach people in business? Otto Scharmer interviews Thomas Johnson

I have been reading Theory U this week by Otto Scharmer, and thoroughly enjoying it. In his research for the book Scharmer had interviewed many leading thinkers in science and business, and these interviews were published on the web as part of the Dialogues in Leadership project, in partnership with McKinsey. Although in theory they are available for researchers to work with under a creative commons license, copyright is complicated by the involvement with McKinsey, so I would like to direct you to their webiste where you will find many fascinating discussions and insights.

Dialogue on Leadership

These interviews used to be available as pdf downloads, but it seems they these are no longer available.  The website is unfortunate to use a small light grey font on a white background, so I have had to copy them into a document in order to read them. But in saying this it is worth the effort!

On dialogue for me was of particular interest, as right now I am working on developing Henri Bortoft’s ideas in a business context. Although Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer have written about Henri in their books Theory U and Presencing, they do not go into too much practical detail or outline any case studies.  One person who has thought about this a lot of Thomas Johnson, who for many years studied Ford, Toyota and Scania.  In his book Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results Through Attention to Work and People he analyses these three companies through the lens and concepts of living systems, and three main principles of live which he sees as self-organization, interdependence, and diversity.

In his interview with Otto, he talks about this in detail.  Here below are some very pertinent points for me that he discusses, and I will also comment with my own observations too.

Goethe Meets Accounting: Seeing the Living Company at Work

From the Conversation with Professor Thomas Johnson

Otto: Tom Johnson’s recent work is organized around the following underlying question: How would we think differently about an organization if we viewed it as a living system rather than as a machine.? Living systems evolve according to the same universal principles that have guided the evolution of the cosmos over the past 15 billion years. The evolution of the cosmos embodies three fundamental principles: self-organization, interdependence, diversity. This change implies a fundamental shift of mind. A shift of mind from a mechanistic, “Newtonian” type of thinking to another perspective that conceives of reality as a living system. Following Bortoft, Goethe, and Bohm, Johnson suggests that the whole is manifested in (and between) the parts. Says Johnson: “I think one of the biggest changes is for managers to start to see the whole mirrored in the parts.” As a consequence, leaders will have to pay more attention the detail: “Leaders have to be concerned more with how the details are orchestrated” such that “the work of each and every individual in the organization is somehow manifesting the union of company and customer.”

Goethe’s Way of Seeing

SR: Here Johnson gives a very brief introduction to Goethe’s theory of light.  One of the best introductions to this is described by Henri Bortoft in his book “The Wholeness of Nature”. When you study Goethe’s way of science, you begin to appreciate that he had a highly developed way of seeing, or perceiving, that helps avoid mixing up what you are seeing with pre-conceived conceptions about what you are seeing.  This is a highly desirable trait in business innovation.

Tom Johnson:It’s just the idea that one of them, Newton, was looking with a preconceived notion, a model, in a sense, that was quantitative and mathematically definable to explain how the colors appear. You’re fractionating the sunlight into colors that are already there. When you get them there’s nothing inherent in the nature of what you’re looking at that’s implicit in the explanation; it’s all explained by the equations and wavelength, or whatever the word was Newton used, refractability. It was all reducible to coefficients in an equation–one color, one coefficient, and so forth.

Toyota looked at Henry Ford’s continuous flow system like Goethe looked at color, and basically said, let’s look at the many particulars in the process. What they concluded was the costs were low because of the continuousness of flow….They went back to Japan and said, all right, we want to build varieties…. For them it wasn’t feasible to break the line up and have a shop here, and a shop here, and a shop here. They didn’t have the resources to build to big scale and run them fast; they were sitting in ashes after the war, they didn’t have any capital. If they were going to do it, they were going to have to do it once, in one plant. Whatever varieties they made were going to come out of that plant and they were going to have to use as few resources as possible. So the continuous flow was logical to them, and that’s what they perceived when they looked at the line….

Resolving Contradiction

SR: Another aspect of Goethe’s way of seeing is the ability to resolve contradiction.  The way this is done is by going into the act-of-seeing, and placing your attention not on what is seen, the objects that are out there, but by going into a much deeper dimension of seeing before these final objects have come into being.  This may sound a bit abstract, but what Goethe was able to perceive in his intuition (and not his rational verbal mind) was the livingness of the plant. We are talking about organic and not mechanistic phenomena here.  So in this next section Johnson is likening Goethe’s ability to see in a much more profound way to that of workers from Toyota, who can then resolve resolve “contradictions” that others can’t because they lack this more organic way of thinking.

Tom Johnson: The starting point for reaching that position is having a system in which you can say, yes, we and every single person here knows that what they’re doing is linked expressly to the satisfaction of customer wants and nothing more. There’s no empty-handed work, no work that can’t be identified with satisfying the customer need. The resources being consumed and the capacity being required to do the work are to the best of our ability no more than what’s needed to fulfill one customer order at a time. Now if you can do that, you can produce with all the variety that’s needed to meet the market’s conditions at the lowest possible cost imaginable. I think those are the two things you’ve basically got to do. Those are the two things that Michael Porter says you can’t do. He says you can do one or the other. You can be a low cost producer or you can be a differentiator. What I’m saying is in a living system, you’re always doing both. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

And when you look at Toyota from a concrete standpoint, they’ve achieved this to a great degree. They don’t fit his model at all. This is because they’ve paid attention to the detailed minute particulars of the product’s design so that it can be produced according to these requirements. The work of the individuals is very standardized according to how the workers themselves have standardized it, so that they know every moment isn’t, in terms of fulfilling customer needs, normal, abnormal. If it’s abnormal I can stop and I correct it. I don’t waste time passing it onto somebody else and having them correct it. Those little things are the secret. And in the design of the product, are we designing it up from a sense of how each particular meets the needs, and then when a change comes, not having to vary any more than the particular part that impinges on that new requirement?

Authentic and Counterfeit Wholes

SR: And finally, Johnson discusses Henri’s concept of authentic and counterfeit wholes.  Notice how it took him a long time to really get what Henri was talking about.  I emphsise this because I have been taught by Henri, and as I go back and re-read his work, I too get a much more profound understanding of these insights.

OS: So what really is the thing called “the whole”?Is there any relevance of that for management and for living in organizations?

Tom Johnson: Well, I think there’s powerful relevance. I draw my basic thinking in that regard from Henri Bortoft, and Bateson as well.

OS: Which is?

Tom Johnson: Bortoft is more explicit. He talks about the counterfeit whole versus the authentic whole. I struggled for a long time trying to figure out what he meant, but I think those differences are very meaningful and get at what you’re talking about here. Were they to be understood by business people, they could trigger a profound change in thinking that would lead to quite different actions. It gets back to all the things I’ve been talking about. You can see the universe as objects that are there because they embody a pattern that in effect bodies itself forth uniquely every moment. I think there is a generative process at work throughout the entire universe which follows certain principles or a pattern that we are aware of in this bodying forth in what we see around us. The parts are everything you see. Anything is mirroring these patterns and principles, mirroring the whole. I’m not sure Bortoft would agree with that interpretation, but I think that’s what he’s saying and what he’s drawing from Goethe. That’s nature. If you look at a machine, created by the human mind, the parts don’t mirror the whole. The parts–

OS: Are outside of the whole.

Tom Johnson: Yes. They’re outside of the whole. The machine, if it works, is obviously well designed by a mind that sees how to make parts interrelate so they’ll do a certain function, as long as properly lubricated and given enough fuel or whatever. But by definition the parts stand alone and don’t in any way mirror the whole. They are like Newton saw the whole universe: independent particles which react only to external force or impact according to external laws and principles. That’s the way we design machines, that’s the way we see the whole thing working. But in nature there’s no such thing. Nature, absent the human, has got no such thing. In nature everything has bodied forth from the process of this universal pattern manifesting itself again and again and again, trillions and trillions of times.

OS: Couldn’t one say that initially we really see both? Don’t we also see external objects which are separate from each other and which can relate to each other through external forces? I would say that at least is the way you can look at the world and make some sense of it. Tom Johnson: You can look at it that way, but Bortoft, or maybe it was Bohm, talked about the difference between separate and separation. You can have things separate but not separated.

OS: Or differentiated and separate.

Tom Johnson: Maybe. Yes, we can look out and we can see things separate from each other, but in reality they are–

OS: Not disconnected. Tom Johnson: They’re not disconnected, they’re part of a web that we don’t see necessarily, unless we really studied this and thought about it. Even then we don’t really literally see it. But there is a web.

OS: The trick is not just to look at the particulars but to look at the particulars in the context of all other particulars.

Tom Johnson: Right. I think that’s what Goethe was talking about. I forget his wording–and of course, any words I know of his are translated English words. Bortoft said to me once he doesn’t read German, and I was surprised.

OS: That’s true. Still, he’s one of the best Goethe interpreters.

Further Reading

Goethe Meets Accounting: Seeing the Living Company at Work

H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Broms (2008) Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results Through Attention to Work and People

C. Otto Scharmer (2009) Theory U – Leading from the Future as it Emerges

Henri Bortoft (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science

Simon with Otto in São Paulo earlier this year

See also my article An Evening with Otto Scharmer


6 responses to “What can Goethe teach people in business? Otto Scharmer interviews Thomas Johnson

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