VSM Quick Guide Nuggets Part 2

About part 2:

Part 2 of my series is actually Part 1 of Jon Walker’s Quick Guide. It deals with how to identify the relevant parts of the organization, in other words, very prosaically: how to find teams and value streams. The reason for my own order is simple: the first part is immediately comprehensible, but this and the following parts use terminology that we must introduce beforehand.

How to find teams sounds like a triviality at first. The detour is necessary, however, because VSM is fractal (or recursive): one can apply the analysis to any part of the organization and always encounter the same regularities: the unit must be able to function, deliver, and secure its future, i.e., be “viable.” This applies to a team, the surrounding value stream, the surrounding program, and so on. Therefore, the first step is to decide which system you are concerned about.

The terms: outsourced

I haven’t introduced the terms I need now – how do I get the hang of it now?

  • most of you know the VSM terms, but I don’t want to be boring
  • but if you do not know the model, you still need them

Ah: I outsource it to a boring introductory article
And I also recommend

  • my White Paper VSM for Lean Practitioners
  • our VSM training program with leading experts

Now let’s go:

Preliminary diagnosis

In pre-diagnosis, you look at your own organization and examine the entities that make it up. That is, you list the parts that do things, the coordination functions, the accounting and planning functions, etc.

Then draw a large VSM that looks something like the pictures above around the

  • the operational parts
  • the parts that receive inputs from the internal eye and deal with the stability and optimization of the operational units.
  • The parts that receive input from the External Eye and make long-term plans in light of environmental information.
  • the political systems.

At the end of this process, you will have a big picture that represents your organization as a whole.

This is the basic model on which the rest of the diagnosis is built.

Sound familiar?

The starting point sounds similar to the approach used in Lean or the Scaled Agile Framework. Lean starts with the stabilization of a value stream, in SAFe there is the step “Find the kidney”, i.e. the relevant units that are scattered across the organizational structure and form the value stream from them.

The VSM approach makes more

  • the metasystem is identified without giving fixed specifications about its structures
  • the external environment is explicitly considered from the beginning.

Why I am writing about this Quick Guide

The other day I stumbled across the “VSM Guide[^1]” by Jon Walker. Jon wrote it to give community organizations a handle on how to effectively organize their work – and to that end, he has given a practical account of the Viable System Model and provides practical, very concrete principles for organizational and team design. And what amazed me is how close these suggestions are to the ones we use for agile teams and organizations.

And: the VSM Guide is from 1991, and at that time the VSM itself was already 20 years old. It was used in a big experiment in Chile in 1971-1973 – back when the Internet was almost invented in Chile – that’s still my cliffhanger.

My multi-method rant

Why don’t we dig more systematically for such ideas? Practices that we can classify under agile existed long before agile, and we should urgently break out of our filter bubble. There are incredible treasures to be found out there – any pirate would sink all his gold for them.

We’ve worked hard for years to reinvent things – even if the old ones were better researched, better theorized, and more consistent. That’s a shame: it wastes resources, it makes us more controversial, and it limits our ability to connect with people from other contexts who are just as smart as we are.


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On Key

The VSM Quick Guide: the model

The introduction to the series on Jon Walker’s VSM quick guide. It describes the simplified VSM vocabulary as used in the rest of the steps.