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A layman explanation of Viable System Model (#vsm #systemsthinking #stwg)

October 13th, 2011 Posted in Systems Thinking Tags: ,
VSM Model

VSM Model

I often talk on this blog about the VSM (not to be confused with Lean’s Value Stream Maps). Here’s my try at laying down a quick introduction to it.

First of all, the reader should open the picture on the right in a new window. I’ll refer to it.

The VSM is a model created by Stafford Beer that describes what ought to be done for an organization to be viable (i.e. to sustain itself over time). There are three kind of components in it:

  • Environment (left oval on the diagram), obviously out of the System, defined as Operations+Management
  • Operations (circles in the middle)
  • Management (squares and triangles on the right)

The VSM is an embodiment of Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety. What does it mean?

Variety is loosely defined as “the number of different states a system can be in”.

The Law of Requisite Variety states that for a system to effectively control another one, it must feature at least as much variety as the one it wants to control.

So these are the basis of the VSM. Here is how it goes.

Environment

The Environment is what the system wants to control, so the system must bear the requisite variety, either genuinely or through attenuation (which means that different states of the Environment are managed through the same response from the System because, from the point of view of the System, they fall into the same “category”).

So, in front of each part of the Environment the System wishes to control, there a corresponding Operations part that interacts with it.

Operations

Operations manage parts of the Environment. As these parts may overlap, different Operations sub-systems need to communicate (represented as the big zig zag line between the two circles on the diagram).

Please note an important point:  the VSM is a recursive model, meaning that every Operations is supposed to be a VSM in itself.

The preceding sentence means that each Operation sub-system is autonomous in the management of its portion of the Environment. More on this later.

Yet, as I said above, some parts of the Environment may overlap, meaning that different Operations sub-systems have to cooperate. Which might, sometime, require some external help in the form of Management.

In the VSM, Operations is named “System 1”.

Management

The Management sub-systems are Systems 2, 3, 3*, 4 and 5 with the following roles:

  • System 2 is in charge of all the signaling between Operations and System 3
  • System 3 manages the relations between different Operations sub-systems and resolve any residual conflicts that may not have been resolved between the System 1 themselves . In VSM speech, it’s said to absorb any residual variety not managed by Operations
  • System 3* (three-star) is an audit system onto Operations
  • System 4 is the foreseeing sub-system in charge of anticipating the future of the Environment as a whole to ensure the VSM will evolve accordingly. Operations are mainly in charge of the present of the Environment parts they’re dealing with and of the Future of their part (since VSM being recursive they have their own sub-system 4)
  • lastly, system 5 is the ethos of the whole VSM, the policy, what defines the strategy of the whole.

Usage of VSM

How do you use the VSM? Mainly, there are two possible usages:

  • one is to define the structure of an organization, the VSM being a template against which a real organization may be designed.
  • the other possible usage is as an audit model where an existing organization is assessed against the model to see where some sub-systems could be lacking, possibly impeding viability of the whole, or where parts of the organization may not fit the VSM in which case these parts can be candidates for removal.

On a more pragmatic level, the overall structure of VSM (and Stafford Beer work on that topic) shows that a viable organization is one where operational entities are autonomous with respect to what they have to manage in the environment, yet following an overall strategy defined at global System 5 level.

Communications between Operations need to exist to ensure coordination and someone must be in charge of coordinating the whole (System 3). Time is taken into account by keeping an eye on the future (System 4) and informing the strategy and/or the management of Operations (System 3) where deemed necessary.

The other side of the coin showed by VSM is that any central authority trying to control everything from the top to down is doomed to fail because it will violate the law of requisite variety (it can’t have the requisite variety). The Environment won’t be properly matched by the variety of the system and so the overall viability is at risk.

Finally, I already talked a bit about VSM (by giving my own sources and mindmap) here (the mindmap is about other principles exposed by Stafford Beer).

 

 

 

 

 

 

#Lean is social constructivism and constructionism (#stwg #systemsthinking)

A few days ago, I attended a Lean conference in Paris (with Michael Ballé) and had an insight with respect to what Lean senseïs (such as Michael) are trying to do.  Or, to be more accurate, I attached some specific meaning to a senseï-deshi relationship (which should be that of a manager with his collaborators, by the way). The details of this kind of relationship and what it entails is well described in Toyota Kata by Mike Rother (a book I yet have to read as I can’t keep pace with the TAKT of Toyota books being released… More info from Mike Rother is available on his own homepage for Toyota Kata with summary slides).

What is it that I had an insight about? Well, one recalls that:

  • a manager should spend most of his time on the Gemba, coaching his collaborators
  • the coaching consist mainly in having people repeat the PDCA loop: grasp the situation (by going to the gemba again), make hypothesis, test solutions and adjust/genealize through standardization where applicable.

One utterly important point (to me) is that the manager/senseï always stresses that grasping the situation, hypothesis formulation, solution testing and standardization must be done with all people impacted, on the gemba.

Testing is where constructionism as a learning theory occurs and co-thinking on a problem is where social constructivism happens. Let me explain below.

On social constructivism in Lean

Lean is very high on socialization of workers (and managers! Western companies should learn from that) and the A3 document is where this most evidently occurs: the A3 holder should not work on his problem on his own but meet with all stakeholders with the A3 as a central point of discussion and summary of discoveries about the problem.

What this process is all about is plain social constructivism: people make meaning of their work environment by constantly exchanging between them about it, either in groups (in Obeyas) or face to face.

Here’s what wikipedia says about social constructivism:

Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructionism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels. Its origins are largely attributed to Lev Vygotsky.

(emphasis mine)

Sounds familiar to Lean people, huh?

Social constructivism is a way of seeing knowledge as meaning made out of social interaction. Any other “knowledge” is just hypothesis making and needs to be confronted (dialogued) with other people to check for validity and build meaning “into” it.

We all know how senseïs work hardly at breaking our (often wrong) mental models and replacing them with 1) Dialogue with stakeholders and 2) genchi genbutsu. This is where the second part happens.

On constructionism (learning theory) in Lean

With Lean senseïs striving for everybody to meet on the gemba where the real stuff happens, Lean is rooted in constructionism as well. Constructionism as a learning theory is defined as follow by Wikipedia:

Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. In this sense, constructionism is connected with experiential learning, and builds on Jean Piaget‘s epistemological theory of constructivism.

(emphasis mine; the page further elaborates on problem-based learning… hint, hint)

What this means is that those that do something learn and know (quite) for sure. What you know in your head without prior testing is only belief (which unsurprisingly rythms with bullshit in Michael speech…)

I recall having read about or heard some of the most impotant questions regarding A3 thinking:

  • how do you know this is a problem? Have you gone to the gemba to check?
  • what are you going to do to test your hypothesis? (constructionism)
  • how will you convince your co-workers about your solution? (constructivism)

Merging social constructivism together with constructionism

The beauty of it all is to have both social constructivism and constructionism learning combined into the same management principles: meaning making occurs on the gemba with people dialoguing together.

That’s what a Lean senseï is trying to do: design learning experiments on the gemba where his deshi could learn something.

Footnotes

Here are some other notes that came to my mind while writing this post. Causation or Correlation? Probably both, the reader will decide…

Michael’s doctorate work on mental models

Michael is the son of Freddy Ballé who introduced Lean in France and Catherine Ballé, an organizational psychologist. Michael did his doctorate thesis on change resistance, especially in the context of introducing Lean into manufacturing companies. That work resulted in the writing of a book (french only it seems): “Les modeles mentaux. Sociologie cognitive de l’entreprise” (which could be translated as “Mental models. Cognitive sociology of organizations”) where these topics are described in deep details along with hypothesis, experiments and their analysis – all on manufacturing gembas. Already.

TWI Job Break Down Sheets improvement by Toyota

Looking back into Toyota history, one can compare the way teaching is done today to how it was done at the time of TWI at the end of World War II.

  • TWI’s Job Breakdown Sheets originally had two columns: “Major Steps” and “Key Points“.
  • Toyota’s JBS have one more: “Justification for key points“.

They obviously realized early that meaning at work was very important for employees. This of course also relates to their “Respect for People” pillar which implies that people know why they’re asked to do things…

Now, I hope you’ll understand better what is meant by “mono zukuri wa, hito zukuri“: “making things is about making people” (Toyota saying as said by Mr Isao KATO here [last page]).

 

Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems that Never Happened (Creating & Sustaining Process Improvement) #Lean paper #stwg

Here’s a fundamental paper that explains some of the difficulties of introducing and sustaining Lean in companies, from a Systems Thinking (Systems Dynamics to be more precise) point of view.

The paper has been authored by John Sterman and Nelson Repenning and is available here.

The paper’s very didactic and takes the reader by the hand into building the diagram step by step.

#Change resistance in others is proportional to our own resistance to change one’s mental model (#stwg #systemsthinking)

Most Change Management activities are geared toward informing, explaining and training people into the change that ought to be done. It’s more or less Coercion Management to me (they conveniently share the same initials by the way).

There’s also the saying that goes “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed“. How true!

It occurred to me that the change resistance we most often sense in others may indeed be the reflection of our own resistance to change our mental models with regard to the situation that needs to be changed.

Which comes down to the assumption (a mental model as well) that there is a reality “out there” and that some view of it may be right when that of others may be wrong (the changer here supposing to have the right – or a righter – view of the situation and thus being allowed and empowered to force the change onto others).

Indeed, the more we push our (unilaterally designed) change, the more people resist. How come? I see two main reasons for that:

  • lack of people involvement in designing the change, with various consequences
  • personal belief to one view of reality only, violating the Law of Requisite Variety (Ross Ashby). Read more »

#SystemsThinking and the Four Agreements of Miguel Ruiz

Here’s an edited repost of a comment I made on LinkedIn Systems Thinking World discussion  forum:

I see a contradiction that needs to be resolved for organizations to be improved. By accepting that 95% of problems come from the system (Deming), it may feel like people are make non-accountable for what occurs. Yet, the people make the system as much as the system makes the people.

So it should be that every people should make their maximum to change the system by changing themselves first (what’s in their span/locus of control).

Which reminds me the Four Agreements of Miguel Ruiz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miguel_%C3%81ngel_Ruiz) :

  • Be Impeccable With Your Word.
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally.
  • Don’t Make Assumptions.
  • Always Do Your Best.

Which I could translate into raw/rough systems speak:

  • Be nice to the system (for it could fight/feed back)
  • It’s not you, it’s the system, stupid!
  • Update your mental models
  • (Do your share to) Improve the system

This also comforts me into feeling that systems thinking teaches compassion.

Comments anyone?

A curse anatomy: #Systems Dynamics view of Micro-management #systhnk

Systems dynamics diagram of micro-management addiction situations

Systems dynamics diagram of micro-management addiction situations

The (real) situation

A friend of mine (middle manager) himself is subjected to micro-management from it’s own manager. Given the high number of projects and subjects ongoing in his perimeter, it’s a pain for him to follow all of them at the level of details required by his own upper manager.

A tentative model

Upon analysis with a systemic diagram, I found a horrible picture where the more a manager would go into micro-management, the more it will feel the urge to go. Here’s the explanation why (click on diagram to open it in a new window to follow explanations)

At the beginning, there is a micro-management need, either from a personal inclination and/or from a high hierarchical position that naturally prevents someone from having detailed information about project.

Balancing loop B1: the manager being in micro-management need take on the micro-management of activities in need (from his point of view), which will, hopefully and again, from his point of view, fix any issues on these activities hence relieving the micro-management need.

This is the main reason which a micro-manager start micro-managing in the first place. Only that this triggers three different reinforcing loops that we will now describe, resulting in a classical “fixes that fail” systems archetype…

Reinforcing loop R1: out of that micro-management need, some activities are felt in need of being-micro-managed (because of perceived problems for instance). The more the manager thus focuses on these micro-managed activities, the less there’s a focus on other activies. As a consequence, issues on other activies start to raise (we’ll see why in the next paragraph). The more other activities have issues, the more they are felt as activities in need of micro-management, which increased the need for the manager to micro-manage activities.

Reinforcing loop R2: the more a manager increase his micro-management need, the less his direct reports are motivated. Which results in a decrease in management of their activities and further increase issues. Side note: an issue on an activity need to be considered from the point of view of the micro-managing manager. This further adds to the micro-management need in the first place.

Reinforcing loop R3: when the motivation of direct reports decreases (as seen in R2), so does the trust on the micro-manager in them, which further increases his micro-managing needs.

So, there we are in a situation where the consequences of micro-management further reinforce themselves.

The solutions?

So, where do we go from there?

Traditional way of dealing with “fixes that fail” archetypes is to try to anticipate the unexpected consequences (of micro-managing in this case). Here, that would mean informing the micro-managing manager of that systemic situation. As we’re talking of a personal inclination (whose psychologic causes may be diverse) it’s not sure that the person will change his behavior (further, pushing the model onto him may just raise it’s resistance to the much needed change, hence locking the situation even more).

It maybe the case that the current situation is one in which we’re dealing with a symptom instead of addressing the root cause. In that case, we’d be in a shifting the burden systems archetype situation with new possibilities arising. I’m for instance thinking of teaching people how to “properly” manage their activities such as not to trigger micro-management needs and teach the micro-manager that he needs to teach rather than do himself, just for his own sanity (hereby addressing the WIIFM: “what’s in it for me”).

It may be the time for some Solution Focus work with the micro-manager and/or the micro-managed people: what behavior worked for you in the past? How can you do more?

Or some coaching, maybe using Motivational Interviewing style where the micro-managed manager is brought peacefully to recognizing that he needs to change (for his own and his people sanity) and then coach him to change?

Have you ever been face with a micro-manager? How did you manage that situation without flying away?

 

The happy complexity of organizational productivity (#lean #solutionfocus #appreciativeinquiry #systemsthinking #positive #psychology)

I’ve been reading that article in Havard Business Review about “The power of small wins” (paying article) and somehow some things felt down together in place:

  • Lean management and any continuous productivity improvement approach for that matter
  • Solution Focus
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • Positive Psychology
  • Happiness (at work)

Read more »

Nice website about #Deming : DemingCollaboration.com (#lean #systemsthinking #change)

I’ve stumbled on this nice websiote with lots of advocacy for Deming’s work (yes, the quality movement initiator). Have a look at www.demingcollaboration.com.

Moreover, the site also makes the link with Lean and Systems Thinking and advocates for a change in management techniques.

Have a good reading!

When is the last time you reflected on your own management behaviors?

A #systemsthinking explanation of lack of respect for people (fundamental #lean pillar)

I have recently finished reading this excellent paper from Raul Espejo regarding the law of requisite variety: “Giving Requisite Variety to Strategic and Implementation Processes: Theory and Practice“. Espejo is a person to read if you’re interested in the Viable System Model (see corresponding articles on this blog and my delicious bookmarks on VSM) as created by Stafford Beer.

In this paper, Espejo make the stunning comment that (I quote, emphasis mine, excerpted from page 3):

“[…] many organisations are still driven by the hierarchical paradigm that assumes the distinctions made at the top are the only relevant ones, which implies that people at lower levels are there only to implement them, but not to make distinctions of their own. Therefore the assumption is that the complexity of a senior manager is much greater than that of a professional in the production line. Somehow it is assumed that people at the top have much bigger brains than those working at ‘lower’ levels. Since they don’t, the space of creative action at ‘lower levels has had to be reduced. The assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This becomes manifest when power is exercised by enforcing distinctions made at corporate levels to construct a limited context of action for the majority in the organisation.”

The last emphasized sentence is insightful for me: “The assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy”. What is meant is that with top management having a mental model of having bigger brains than people at lower hierarchical levels, they take on more decisions than people below them. This mental model then hinders learning from the very people that top management would probably want to have bigger brain but that they prevent them from developing… Management complains about employees being cogs in the machine, but, because they think they are, they remove every opportunity for them to turn back to being human and use their brain, which makes them further into cogs.

Another case of espoused-theory vs. theory-in-use, I guess.

In Lean, we say that management should act as coaches to their reporting collaborators and don’t give them answers (we even encourage management to let their employees fail in order to learn). It may be slower on the short-term, but probably the best way to grow them and increase productivity and morale in the longer term.

How many times today have you solved someone else’s problem?

I hope you’ll solve less tomorrow…

“The collapse of belief” a #systemsthinking and mental models explanatory ebook

I’ve stumbled upon this very nice booklet that explains all that there is to know about mental models or beliefs: how they constrain us, how they are difficult to identify and how we can change them or just get rid of them.

A very nice read for anybody in the change business (Lean, Appreciative Inquiry, Solution Focus, Systems Thinking…)

“The Collapse of Belief – Rethinking Your Thinking Within a Different Tomorrow” by Kurt and Barbara Hanks.

Through what lens (belief) do you see the world?

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