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Systems Thinking

W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis is a master work by arguably the most well-known systems thinker and quality expert. It opens with the modest goal, “The aim of this book is transformation of the style of American management… It requires a whole new structure, from foundation upward.” Deming also advocates the System of Profound Knowledge in which managers (1) appreciate there is a system, (2) understand common-cause and special-cause variation (queueing theory is related to variation), (3) understand limitations of knowledge and reasoning mistakes, and (4) know credible psychology and social research results so that behavior- or motivation-related policies are not based on “common sense.” The core of the book centers around his famous 14 Points for Management, including (for example), “Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.”

Jay Forrester’s Industrial Dynamics is the classic text on system dynamics—well written and insightful. Although written in the early 1960s, it is as relevant today as when published. It goes beyond cause-effect modeling to also model the flow and inventories of information, money, and material in systems. The book includes formal mathematical modeling but this is not obligatory to appreciate system dynamics.

Weinberg’s Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking and An Introduction to General Systems Thinking are worthwhile. Written from the perspective of an experienced consultant in systems development.

Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is a classic that advocates the need for leadership to apply systems thinking (it is the fifth discipline) and other key disciplines for a great, sustainable enterprise. The others include leaders with (1) personal mastery and (2) reflection on their beliefs and faulty reasoning, the (3) definition and communication of a meaningful shared vision, and (4) the ability of teams to learn. We recommend ignoring—at least during the first few years of practice—the ‘archetypes’ notion presented in the book. It was well meant as a learning aid but has been observed to distract and intimidate people from learning and applying basic system dynamics modeling. The ‘archetypes’ are not part of original system dynamics.

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook is an in-depth resource, written from the viewpoint of many practitioners and consultants.

The organizational-learning writings from Argyris, Putnam, McLain, and Schon. Important concepts include double-loop learning and high-advocacy/high-inquiry dialogue. Classic works include Action Science and Organizational Learning.

The publications and resources available through the Society for Organizational Learning

Lean Thinking

Dr. Jeffrey Liker’s The Toyota Way is a thorough cogent summary from a researcher who has spent decades studying Toyota and their principles and practices.

Inside the Mind of Toyota by Professor Satoshi Hino. Hino spent many years working in product development, followed by an academic career. Hino has “spent more than 20 years researching the subject of this book.” This is a data-driven book that looks at the evolution and principles of the original lean thinking management system.

Extreme Toyota by Osono, Shimizu, and Takeuchi is a well-researched analysis of the Toyota Way values, contradictions, and culture, based on six years of research and 220 interviews. It includes an in-depth analysis of Toyota’s strong business performance. Hirotaka Takeuchi was also co-author of the famous 1986 Harvard Business Review article “The New New Product Development Game” that introduced key ideas of Scrum.

Lean Product and Process Development by Allen Ward and The Toyota Product Development System by Liker and Morgan are useful for insights into development from a lean perspective.

Toyota Culture by Liker and Michael Hoseus. Hoseus has worked both as a plant manager and HR manager at Toyota, bringing an insider’s in-depth understanding to this book on the heart of what makes a lean enterprise work.

Lean Thinking by Drs. Womack and Jones is an entertaining and well-written summary of some lean principles by authors who know their subject well. As cautioned earlier in this chapter it presents an anecdotal and condensed view that may give the casual reader the wrong impression that the essential key of lean is waste reduction rather than a culture of manager-teachers who understand lean thinking and help build the pillars of respect for people and continuous improvement with Go See and other behaviors.

The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production by Womack, Jones, and Roos was based on a five-year study at MIT into lean and the Toyota system.

Workplace Management by Taichii Ohno is a short book by the creator of the Toyota Production System. It was out-of-print but has been recently re-translated by Jon Miller and is now available. The book does not talk much about TPS but it contains a series of short chapters that show well how Taichii Ohno thought about management and lean systems.

Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s books Lean Software Development and Implementing Lean Software Development are well-written books that make important connections between lean thinking, systems thinking, and agile development.

Queueing Theory

Managing the Design Factory by Don Reinertsen is a classic introduction on queueing theory and development. Reinertsen has a broad and deep grasp of both product development and business economics and weaves these insights together into one of our favorite books on product development. This is the book that popularized the model of thinking tools for process improvement and organizational change.

Flexible Product Development by Preston Smith was the first widely-popular general product development book that introduced agile software development concepts—including Scrum and Extreme Programming—to a broader audience. This text includes an analysis of queueing theory and variability, and their relationship to development.


Agile Software Development by Alistair Cockburn. Emphasizes the principles and theory underlying agile methods, with a special focus on communication.

Agile Software Development with Scrum (Schwaber and Beedle) and Agile Project Management with Scrum (Schwaber) both explore how to be agile.

Agile & Iterative Development: A Manager’s Guide (Larman) summarizes the key ideas and introduces Scrum, Extreme Programming, and older iterative methods such as Evo.

Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change (2E) by Kent Beck with Cynthia Andres. Although both Scrum and the DSDM agile methods predate XP, this is the book and Beck is the person that really kicked off the widespread popularity of agile development. Beck credits his 1980s co-worker Ward Cunningham with making seminal agile contributions. Beck and Cunningham are also noteworthy for having introduced the idea of design patterns to the software community [BC88], and Cunningham created the widely popular wiki concept and technology that is used for Wikipedia and within many companies applying agile methods.

Feature Teams

Dynamics of Software Development by Jim McCarthy. Originally published in 1995 but republished in 2008. Jim’s book is a true classic on software development. Already in 1995 it emphasized feature teams. The rest of the book is stuffed with insightful tips related to software development.

"XP and Large Distributed Software Projects" by Karlsson and Andersson. This early large-scale agile development article is published in Extreme Programming Perspectives. It is a insightful and much under-appreciated article describing the strong relationship between feature teams and continuous integration.

"How Do Committees Invent?" by Mel Conway. This 40-year article is as insightful today as it was 40 years ago. It is available via the authors website at

Agile Software Development in the Large by Jutta Eckstein. This is the first book published on the topic of scaling agile development. It describes the experience of a medium-sized (around 100 people) project and stresses the importance of feature teams in large-scale development.

"Promiscuous Pairing and Beginner’s Mind" by Arlo Belshee. This article is not directly related to feature teams or large-scale development but it does contain some fascinating experiments that question some of the assumptions behind specialization.


Leading Teams by Richard Hackman. Harvard professor Richard Hackman is a long-time team researcher. His book is currently our favorite team-related book. It has a strong focus on helping management in their change to team-based work.

Leading Self-Directed Work Teams by Kimball Fisher. This book has a strong focus on the change in role when one becomes a team leader of a self-directed team.

The Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility by Michele Sliger and Stacia Broderick. Michele and Stacia are two Scrum Trainers and also PMI-certified PMPs. Traditional project managers will find here an explanation of the difference in thinking from a PMI PMBOK perspective. When reading it, please read their “agile project manager” as ScrumMaster.

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith. This is probably the most popular team reference and certainly worth reading.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. Written like a novel, it covers well the need for conflict in teams.

Fast Cycle Time, by Chris Meyer. Recently republished (2007), this is a true classic on product development and talks about cross-functional (multifunctional) teams in detail.

Revolutionizing Product Development, by Steven Wheelwright and Kim Clark. Another classic in product development literature; has one chapter on cross-functional integration.

Software for Your Head, by Jim and Michele McCarthy. Jim and Michele spent years in ‘boot camps’ to find the most efficient ways for teams to work. They documented this as a set of protocols in this book.

Peopleware, by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister. This classic on the importance of people in software development also has a couple of chapters focusing on teams.


Work Redesign, by Richard Hackman. A book written in 1980s and mainly focused on administration and factory work. But the ideas in this book are as insightful today as they were thirty years ago. In the last part, Hackman made predictions about the future of work that are surprisingly accurate. One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? by Frederick Herzberg. The first part of this classic article is about motivation and the hygiene/motivator theory. The last part looks at work redesign from a slightly different angle than that of Hackman.

Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier, by Etienne Wenger and William Snyder. This is a Harvard Business Review article and is a short and easy-to-read introduction to the concept of CoP.

Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger, Richard Dermott, and William Snyder. What, why, and how? These questions are answered with lots of practical examples.

Six Dangerous Myths About Pay, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. This short article not only covers the pay-per-performance myth, but also several other pay-related myths.

Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Are incentive systems the only reward-related problem or is more going on? Kohn takes a deep dive in the subject of rewarding at work and in the classroom. This analysis challenges some fundamental assumptions behind rewarding.

Abolishing Performance Appraisals, by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins. Are performance appraisals rooted in good insight, credible organizational research, and evidence? This analysis concludes that no evidence exists that they work and that the assumptions behind performance appraisals are shaky at best.

Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations, by Rob Austin. What happens if you give incentives but are not able to measure all the workers’ output? This is one of the questions Rob Austin tries to answer in his book. His model shows that measurement dysfunctions are the outcome, ironically resulting in poorer performance.

Maverick, by Richardo Semler. Semco, a Brazilian company from S‹o Paolo has gradually freed its employees. Once a fairly traditional company, Semco went through a major change and became one the most studied companies in the world because of their innovative HR practices. Maverick describes this change.

Birth of the Chaordic Age, by Dee Hock. “Self-management cannot happen in traditional industries such as banking.” Not so. Dee Hock is the founder of Visa and describes how it was build on the principles of self-organization.

Business Without Bosses, by Charles Manz and Henry Sims. What would happen without managers? Would there be total chaos? Not at W. L. Gore. They practice ‘unmanagement’ and do not have an organization chart at all. Chapter 6 of Business Without Bosses describes how W. L. Gore operates.

The Google Story, by David Vise. One of the most successful companies of the last decade: Google. This book describes the history of Google and some of the interesting practices within Google. It is a little superficial, but still worth reading.

The Future of Management, by Gary Hamel. “What will be the future role of management?” is the key question in Hamel’s book. Chapters 4–6 study three companies with innovative organizational practices: Whole Foods Market, W. L. Gore, and Google.


The first book on Scrum was Agile Software Development with Scrum (Schwaber and Beedle) and this is well worth study. It highlights aspects of Scrum—such as the relationship to complex adaptive systems—that are not always emphasized but are important.

Agile Project Management with Scrum (Schwaber) is valuable; it includes significant discussion on the role of a ScrumMaster.