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What is a General System Principle?

Looking back at his early work in 1968, von Bertalannfy described the core idea of General System Theory this way:

There exist models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems...irrespective of their particular kind. ...We postulate a new discipline called General System Theory. (Bertalanffy, 1968)

According to Bertalanffy (1972a), he first presented the idea of general system theory in a seminar at the University of Chicago in 1937. Earlier, in a 1928 German language publication, Bertalanffy emphasized organization as a key concept for understanding systems. He provided this English translation in 1972:

Since the fundamental character of the living thing is its organization, the customary investigation of the single parts and processes cannot provide a complete explanation of the vital phenomena. This investigation gives us no information about the coordi­nation of parts and processes. Thus the chief task of biology must be to discover the laws of biological sys­tems (at all levels of organization).

...This view, considered as a method of investigation, we shall call 'organ­ismic biology' and, as an attempt at an explanation, 'the system theory of the organism'... (quoted in Bertalanffy, 1972b)

Bertalanffy (1972b) added:

...If the term 'organism' in the above statements is replaced by other 'organized entities,' such as social groups, personality, or technological devices, this is the program of systems theory.

Models, Principles, Laws

In his 1968 summary of general system theory, Bertalanffy referred to "models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems." But those are arguably three different things.

Models are representations. They are simplified descriptions, diagrams, or depictions of more complicated real-world things. Scientific theories can be regarded as models.

Principles are foundations. They are building blocks for more complex analysis or theories, such as the fundamental propositions of a belief system. One commonly sees references to elementary principles.

Law comes from the Old English lagu and Old Norse lag, meaning something laid down or fixed. A law of nature is a fixed and immutable feature of the universe.

The concept of laws of nature is actually controversial in philosophy, defined in a variety of different ways ("Laws of Nature," 2017). If one follows the etymology of the word law, a law of nature should be something fixed and immutable, true of all systems every­where, like the limitation on the speed of light, or the law of gravity.

Bertalanffy and James G. Miller originally defined general system theory as a search for general laws of all systems. Miller followed this template in writing Living Systems (1978) when he specified 20 critical subsystems found in every living system (see previous page).

Anatol Rapoport, by contrast, looked for deep structural similarities between superficially different systems. Those resemblances are not laws (not found always or everywhere) and they are not models (theories of a single type of system).

That label principles fits the type of patterns located by Rapoport. They are foundational patterns, discovered at the root of different systems.

Rapoport focused on functional similarities: parallels in the way the system functioned or operated. This required focusing on patterns of organization, as Bertalanffy originally specified, but also patterns of operation, observed when a system is in motion, with information or energy flowing between parts.

Example: Negative Feedback

Consider the pattern known as negative or deviation-reducing feedback. It is found in all systems that show goal-directed behavior.

If your understanding of negative feed­back is hazy, that does not matter, and a later page is devoted to this concept. For now, the important thing is that the same underlying pattern is found in all different systems that show goal-directed behavior.

Why is negative feedback so ubiquitous? There is no other way to achieve goal-directed behavior in a system.

Negative feedback is far from trivial. It is not obvious (nobody identified this pattern until the 20th Century). And it has consequences. Goal-directed behavior has been vitally important to life on Earth for billions of years.

Deviation-reducing or negative feedback is a part of any non-living system showing purposeful or intelligent beha­vior, including guided missiles and com­puters. Negative feedback is not just a principle of life; it is a principle of systems in general, found wherever the pursuit of goals is observed.

General Systems principles are all like this: generic solutions to recurring problems. When­ever you see a system that pursues a goal, there you will find negative feed­back.

Similar statements could be made about every general system principle. Where you see behavior ABC, under the surface you will find mechanism XYZ.

More Examples

Rapoport's version of General Systems was like a treasure hunt for such deep similarities between systems. For example, Rapoport chose to reprint Herbert Simon's classic, "The Architec­ture of Complexity." In that article, Simon pointed out that all systems are hierarch­ically ordered.

Why is this pattern found in all complex systems? There is no other way to do it. A large system must be composed of smaller components.

Therefore this is very general principle, applying to all systems everywhere. For that reason it could also be called a law.

Rapoport also reprinted Donald T. Campbell's articles noting a close resemblance between the pattern Darwin discovered in evolution (variation and selective propagation of winning variants) and the processes of creativity in other systems.

Why is this pattern important? If you want creativity (novel, adaptive forms) in a system, there is no other way to do it.

Rapoport, by finding deep similarities, rebutted the early criticisms (e.g. Buck, 1956) that general system principles were merely analogies or coincidences. Deep similarities are quite the opposite. Rather than trivial analogies, they are essential insights into how systems work.

General System Principles as Inevitabilities

Summarizing the arguments above, general system principles are inevitabil­ities about mechanisms (organizational arrangements) underlying certain pat­terns of behavior. All the general system principles can be put into this form:

Wherever you see ABC in a system, you will find XYZ making it possible.

In this formulation, ABC is some important pattern of behavior in a system. XYZ is the explanation for how it must occur. A detailed explanation like that is called a mechanism in science. General system principles direct attention from observable behavior patterns to underlying mechanisms.

This is similar to the Necessitarian Theory, in philosophical discussions of the laws of nature. This theory says that laws of nature are necessary or that systems must "obey" laws of nature.

Scare quotes notwithstanding, the implication of obey is that some agent outside the system says, "It must be this way." I see nothing like that in General Systems.

What I do see is logical necessity, in which the patterns we observe cannot occur without a corresponding organizational pattern. I will leave it to others to decide if that is the same thing as obeying a law of nature.

On the previous page, we reported how W. Edwards Deming used Bertalanffy's insights when he developed Total Quality Management. Deming's insights can be analyzed into inevitabilities, just like other general system principles.

For example, fewer defects cannot happen without error correction, both during a manufacturing process (quality control) and afterward (in detecting and correcting faults). To put it into ABC/XYZ form, "Wherever you see fewer defects, you will see better error correction."

That is an inevitable truth of manufac­turing. Error-correction, in the form of quality checks and measurements during the manufacturing process, is the only method by which defects can be minimized. It is "the" mechanism for reducing defects.

This is a useful generalization, an essential principle for any manufac­turer to know. It also seems obvious after the fact. Is it also trivial?

You could certainly make that argument. Defects are errors, after all. Naturally they cannot be corrected without error-correc­tion, which is the act of looking for errors, followed by taking steps to correct them. Obvious.

That is another characteristic of general system principles: post-hoc obviousness. However, history shows us that these principles were not obvious before they were discovered and analyzed and made familiar.

"If you want fewer storage requirements for component parts, you must have just-in-time delivery of components." That is another principle, this time from Kaizen, the Japanese manufacturing philosophy that evolved from Deming's Total Quality Management.

This, too, is obvious...but only after you already know it and see it work. Then you wonder how any manufacturer could have avoided this insight. But it was unknown to American manufacturers until the Japanese re-introduced Deming's ideas to them in the 1980s.

The concept of lean manufacturing came out of Kaizen. In this case it was not an idea of Deming's; it was originated by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, which became Lean Manufacturing.

Lean manufacturing can also be construed as an inevitability. Lean manufacturing seeks to eliminate all the wasteful or unnecessary parts of the manufacturing process: the parts and processes that do not contribute to quality or profits.

How does a company implement lean manufacturing? There is only one way. Examine all facets of the manufacturing process, identify practices and processes that do not contribute to quality or profits, and eliminate them.

The results of lean manufacturing are always the same: simpler processes, less inventory, better quality, and there­fore (other things being equal) higher profits. It works every time, no matter what the product.

Actually it is perfectly conceivable that an attempt at lean manufacturing could be botched, resulting in damage to a company. The principle works if it is applied correctly and genuinely unneeded elements are removed.

Like all general system principles, this contains an element of tautology: the principle is inevitable, indeed, as long as it fits and it is properly applied! And those are major caveats. See the page toward the end of the toolkit: Tautology: Not Always Bad.

Total Quality Management begot Kaizen, which begot Lean Manufacturing, which begot continuous improvement or CI. That is the label currently used for the manufacturing philosophy that evolved from Deming and Ohno's ideas.

Continuous Improvement is basically an English translation of the word kaizen, which means to improve something, gradually, one step at a time. Some experts say the name should be continual improvement, as that better reflects the incremental nature of progress in manufacturing, accomplished one step at a time.

Like lean manufacturing, continuous improvement or CI is now found all over the world. CI implies periodic evaluations and improvements in all aspects of the manufacturing process.

Suggestion boxes (and quick action on suggestions) are an essential part of CI. To maximize inflow of key information from the people in the best position to know, suggestions can come from any level: a worker on an assembly line, an executive, a purchaser–anybody in the corporation.

Upon reflection, CI is the only logical way to improve manufacturing. Analyze, measure, and improve the processes, one step at a time. How else could you do it?

Implementing CI in an individual case requires executive skill for numerous decisions (suggestions must be weighed, compared, evaluated, and some might contradict others). It is not necessarily easy to improve existing technologies and methods. But if you want to do it, the way forward (striving for continual, incremental improvement) is...obvious.

As usual, it is obvious in hindsight. Yet people were not doing CI consciously until the second half of the 20th Century. Factories were not doing it consistently, all over the world, until the 21st Century.

Now, to be competitive, everybody has to do it. As a result, we see improvements in price, quality, or both in almost every category of manufactured product, year by year.

Phrases like "there is only one way" or "it is the only way" signal an inevitability is involved. CI is like a system principle applied to manufacturing.

Kaizen and lean manufacturing and CI can be applied to any industry. That, too, is a marker of a general system principle. Wherever it fits (wherever ABC is observed or desired) the same principle (XYZ) can be applied.

General Systems Principles as Tools

One last metaphor for describing general system principles is implied by the title of this toolkit. Tools are devices used to carry out particular functions.

General system principles are concep­tual tools. The function they carry out is to identify underlying mechanisms for important categories of observed behavior. They allow analysis of a variety of systems.

"It is a poor craftsman who blames his tools." That is an old saying, and it does not mean tools are unimportant. It means an expert craftsperson knows how to select and use excellent tools.

If you were starting a new manufacturing facility, would you use Continuous Improvement? Would you design a factory so it could be continually upgraded and improved? You might if you wanted to survive in today's competitive environment.

Each general system principle explains a function or solves a problem. I selected about 20 patterns that proved most useful to me over 40 years (21 as it turned out) and I titled this presentation a toolkit to emphasize the utility of using these patterns to analyze new systems.


Bertalanffy, L. (1968) General system theory: foundations, development, applications. NY: G. Braziller.

Bertalanffy, L. (1972a) General system theory—critical review. General Systems Yearbook, 4, 1-20.

Bertalannfy, L. (1972b) The History and Status of General Systems Theory. The Academy of Management Journal, 15, 407-426.

Buck, R.C. (1956) On the Logic of General Behavior Systems Theory. In H. Fiegl & M. Scriven (Eds), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 1, 223-238.

Deming, W. Edwards (1993). The New Economics for Industry, Government, and Education. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Laws of nature. (2017). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from:

Miller, J. G. (1978) Living Systems. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Search Psych Web including the General Systems Toolkit and the online textbook Psychology: An Introduction below.

Copyright © 2017 Russ Dewey