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Different Approaches to General System Theory

The main idea of General Systems, as presented in 1954, was that identical patterns, principles, or laws of operation could be found in different systems. In 1955, Ralph Gerard, Anatol Rapo­port, and James Grier Miller established a headquarters for a Society for General Systems Research at the Mental Health Research Institute in Ann Arbor.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy and James G. Miller originally defined general system theory as a search for general laws of all systems. They observed that nature, as a whole, could be described as a set of interlocking systems, and almost all the systems had features in common.

For example, all living systems used energy to maintain themselves. Ludwig von Bertalanffy called this type of system an open system and pointed out that such systems operated in a way distinct from the closed systems described by classical laws of physics.

James G. Miller eventually released a 1000+ page book describing every category of living system on earth, highlighting what they had in common. Miller's Living Systems was finished and published in 1978, but the die was cast much earlier.

In a 1956 summary Miller presented his "general behavior systems theory" this way:

General systems theory is a series of related definitions, assumptions, and postulates about all levels of systems from atomic particles through atoms, molecules, crystals, viruses, cells, organs, individuals, small groups, societies, planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

General behavior systems theory is a subcategory of such theory, dealing with living systems, extend­ing roughly from viruses through societies. A significant fact about living things is that they are open systems, with important inputs and outputs. Laws which apply to them differ from those applying to relatively closed systems. (Miller, 1956)

In Living Systems, Miller specified 20 critical subsystems he said were found in every living system. These included a system decoder that prepares information for use by the system, a timer that maintains the appro­priate spatial/temporal relationships, and 18 others. Miller later re-titled his theory Living Systems Theory or LST.

Rapoport's Approach

Rapoport was less ambitious than Miller and Bertalanffy. Rather than looking for laws explaining all living systems, Rapo­port was more interested in finding unexpected and useful similarities between superficially different systems. If the similarity was precise, preferably expressible in mathe­matics, and seemed important, Rapoport was interested in it.

Rapoport was co-founder of the original Society for General Systems Research at the MHRI in 1955. He was appointed editor of the Yearbook, its official organ, in 1956. His approach prevailed in the Yearbook.

As editor of the Yearbook, Rapoport looked for articles in scholarly journals identifying deep similarities between different systems. Rapoport had written such an article in 1953, co-authored with H.G. Landau, comparing disease contagion with the spread of rumors (the phenom­enon known today as "going viral"). The mathematical formulas describing the two were identical.

Looking back, the various founders of General Systems valued different aspects of the enterprise. Miller and Bertalanffy were looking for universality (laws describing how all systems related). Rapoport seemed to value utility (surprising or unusual similarities between different systems).

The most common criticism of general system theory, after its introduction in 1955, was that similarities between systems might be coincidences or trivial analogies. In the beginning I did not understand this criticism, because it did not apply to articles in the Year­book. These were screened by Rapoport, who zeroed in on similarities that seemed important.

Later I encountered James G. Miller's version of General Systems and realized what the critics meant. Because he was trying to identify things all living systems had in common, Miller necessarily spent a lot of time detailing trivial and obvious features of living systems.

This was particularly true in his tome Living Systems. Miller went through every category of living system, spelling out how each implemented the 20 critical subsystems Miller saw in living systems.

This resulted in a sort of checklist approach: Here is another category of living things. Sure enough, they have inputs (check), outputs (check), they consume energy (check), they maintain boundaries (check), and so on for each of the 20 sub-systems.

Rapoport's approach is best explained by examining some of the principles he highlighted in Yearbook articles. This toolkit is all about Rapoport's approach, so we will defer that discussion until the next page (What is a General System Principle).

W. Edwards Deming

Bertalanffy's specialty was biology, but one of the first areas to benefit from Bertalanffy's insights was manufacturing. Before he ever wrote about his ideas in scientific journals, Ludwig von Bertalannfy discussed them in academic seminars: groups of scholars who met to discuss important ideas.

W. Edwards Deming attended a seminar with Bertalanffy in the 1940s. He was inspired to apply principles of systems analysis to manufacturing. Deming developed an approach that was embraced by the Japanese and labeled by them Total Quality Management.

Deming conceived of manufacturing as a system for producing a the best possible product at the lowest possible cost. Statistical analysis, he realized, could be used to optimize all phases of manufacturing, with the goal of producing better products more efficiently.

In The New Economics (1993), Deming listed appreciation of systems as one of humanity's "four pillars of profound knowledge." Deming's approach was to treat manufacturing as a total system extending from procurement of materials to sale of the finished product, optimized with statisical analysis at every step.

The realm of employer/employee relationships was included. So was anything else that affected the overall manufacturing process. These ideas, brought to Japan in a series of lectures in 1950, became the foundation of what the Japanese called Total Quality Management.

Deming's ideas had a profound effect on Japan's post-war manufacturing boom. The top prize for industrial innovation in Japan was named after him in 1951, and the Deming Prize is now an international award, "the oldest and most widely recognized quality award in the world."

Those ideas came back to the U.S. in the 1980s as American manufacturers tried to replicate the extraordinary success of Japanese manufacturers. Total Quality Management evolved into a philosophy called Continual (or Continuous) Improvement, CI for short. It is used all over the world to optimize manufacturing in the 21st Century.


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

Landau, H.G. & Rapoport, A. (1953) Contribution to the mathematical theory of contagion and spread of information. Bulletin of Mathematics and Biophysics, 15, 173-183.

Miller, J. G. (1956) General behavior systems theory and summary. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 3, 120-124.

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

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