The Fifth Discipline

OK…I probably don’t have to review the The Fifth Discipline.  It’s a classic…everyone has read it.  Bas de Baar had an excellent review of this book recently…mine won’t begin to approach his in length or quality but I wanted to share a few thoughts.

I read the original edition quite a while ago (in college actually) and didn’t get much out of it…but this time around I did.  I knew I was going to enjoy the book when, in the Introduction to the Revised Edition, I found this gem:

…the prevailing system of of management, is at its core, dedicated to mediocrity. It forces people to work harder and harder to compensate for failing to tap the spirit and collective intelligence that characterizes working together at their best.

The book outlines Five Disciplines that must be adopted in order to become a learning organization. These Five Disciplines are:

  • Systems Thinking – a conceptual framework that has been developed over the last fifty years to make patterns clear
  • Personal Mastery – the discipline of continually clarifying and deepining our personal vision, focusing our energies, developing patience and seeing reality objectively.
  • Mental Models – deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations that influence our picture of the world
  • Building Shared Vision -involves the skills to create and/or unearthing the shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment
  • Team Learning – when teams are learning, they (and the members of the team) are able to produce tremendous results.

The book can be summed up in a few sentences…but they don’t do the book justice.  Peter Senge states that in order to become a learning organization, the Five Disciplines must be adopted with the Systems Thinking discipline being the most important.  He argues that Systems Thinking allows people and organizations to see the deeper issues of problems.

I’m not going to dive any deeper into the book or the five disciplines here (go read Bas’ post for some interesting commentary) and there are plenty of other detailed discussions of this book around the web (see here, here and here for starters).

In addition, I want to share some excellent quotes from the book that I thought highlight the underlying purpose/meaning of the book.

The first passage is:

It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble. This is challenging because it is much harder to integrate new tools than simply apply them separately. But the payoffs are immense.

This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It is the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. It keeps them from being separate gimmicks or the latest organization change fads. Without a systemic orientation, there is no motivation to look at how the disciplines interrelate. By enhancing each of the other disciplines, it continually reminds us that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.

The second passage is:

A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality.

And this wonderful nugget from Edwards Deming in the introduction:

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people.  People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.  The forces of destruction begin  with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween Customer, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university.  On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom.

These are but a few of the great passages from this book.   There is a great deal of information in this book that will probably require several readings to fully take in….i may put it back on the book shelf to read again later in the year.

I really enjoyed the book a great deal.  A friend of mine pointed me to the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook as a more implementable version of the book…I’ll be taking a look at it over the next few weeks.

3 responses to “The Fifth Discipline”

  1. Andrew Meyer Avatar


    thanks for the reminder about one of the most idealistic books ever written. I love the book, but it reminds me of a comment my Sargent in the Air Force often told me when I came to him with some idealistic idea.

    “If a frog had wings, it wouldn’t wop it’s ass every time it jumped.”

    Actually, he usually tried to say “Shut-up you sh*t head” several times before he got around to counseling this well meaning, but misguided young Airman.

    Senge’s book is idealistic, hopeful and a wonderful read, but in many cases misguided. A business exists to sell widgets. The widget may be some service, some piece of software or a scraper to take stickers off windows, but at its core, it’s just a widget the business is selling.

    The degree to which improving systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision or learning makes a business relatively more effective at selling their widgets, you can expect those things to happen. “Relative” being the optimal word in that sentence.

    An individual may strive for personal excellence. That is a measure of their internal fortitude and desire, but an organization striving for an ideal out of sync with it’s competition is no more likely than wings on a frog.

    In fact, thinking about it more, it’s probably self destructive. Kodak probably built the best photographic film company by focusing on ideals of excellence, only to watch its business gutted by digital cameras. How many companies that won the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award have nearly (or not so nearly) declared bankruptcy the next year?

  2. Eric D. Brown Avatar


    My take away from the book was that systems thinking helps you look at the underlying problems facing your organization rather than accepting the first ’cause’ that you think you find. I don’t think this book is about quality at all…..and that is made clear in the introduction to the 2nd edition. Senge states that TQM and other quality initiatives have driven the human spirit and the art of innovation out of business.

    Kodak failed because they didn’t look hard enough at the underlying problem facing their photography business. Their problem wasn’t quality or lack of innovation…their problem was that they weren’t innovating in the areas that mattered.