Blame Game

Ackoff's Mess and Dilbert's World of Work

When organizations grow large, risks, errors and conflicts multiply exponentially. Management’s capability to solve problems and reduce risk falls behind this upward curve of problems – overwhelming most everyone. Systems theorist Russell Ackoff summarized the situation this way: 


“In the systems age, we don’t have problems, we have sets of interrelated problems. I have a special scientific name for this. 
I call it a mess.”

Unfortunately Ackoff’s Mess is just “Business as Usual” in many big business, heath care, service and government operations. It is made up of non-value added  wasteful activity (over 90%), variability in inputs or work methods, and chronic overload of people and equipment. These conditions accumulate into periodic breakdowns and a negative culture

What is the Mess Made Of?

Social scientists Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen describe the three levels of problems inside the mess.

Type One: Problems with known functioning and information available.

Type Two: Issues with known functioning but many unknowns.

Type Three: Compound or complex problems with no clear functions, no data and many unknowns

When firefighting problems most managers attempt to solve problems as if all of them were type one, that is have known functions, ready information and are subject to rational problem solving. And when people can't solve complex problems they play the blame game. 

The Blame Game Cycle – How Conflict and Waste Remake Ackoff's Mess Over and Over!

In many big companies and government organizations, the Blame Game perpetually refills the swamp of wasteful processes and negative culture.  I have validated it in many training sessions in industry and government. In fact in one training event at an automotive OEM, a supervisor spontaneously stood up and yelled out “That’s exactly how we work every week!”  

  1. The Blame Game begins with an organization complacent in Ackoff’s Mess of waste, accepted as the normal way of doing business. People avoid waste and problems, until they eventually ripen into a breakdown – like a late project, a lost contract or an angry customer. 
  2. The breakdown triggers firefighting and aggressive 24/7 efforts by “all hands-on deck”. Yet soon after, feeling agitated or angry, managers blame the people closest to the crisis, not the system!
  3. With time and enough resources a “hero” figure emerges to solve the problem (but not the system that created it). Then everyone rests and avoids risk until the next “blame-game” episode begins.


A recent survey showed that seventy-one percent of American workers are "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" in their work; meaning they are emotionally disconnected and are less likely to be productive. This trend remained relatively stable throughout 2011. (Source Gallup website, 10/28/2011, by Nikki Blacksmith and Jim Harter)

Scott Adams in the cartoon strip, "Dilbert" illustrates a common problem in big enterprise. It's called Dilbert’s Law.

  1. Due to size, scope and complexity big enterprises naturally generate lots of waste, problems, and confusion.
  2. When managers are unable to resolve waste and problems quickly, they use blame to push employees for results.
  3. Blame generates a culture of disengaged, even alienated employees, extending well beyond those directly criticized.
  4. Disengaged, alienated employees ignore problems or willfully cause new ones.
  5. Return to number one

With cycles of problems and confusion Ackoff’s mess grows, with more frustration and anger. The result is “Dilbert’s World”, a corrosive culture that resists all change – even what people say they want! 

What is the way out of Dilbert’s World? 

The Sensei Way.

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