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VSM Preliminary Diagnosis Step 1

Step 1:
Define the System in Focus


To clarify the boundaries of the System-in-Focus.

During the diagnosis which follows, there are times when it’s easy to lose track of exactly what is being studied. So it’s essential to begin the Preliminary Diagnosis with a clear statement of the organisation (or the parts of the organisation) you are looking at. Throughout this guide, this will be referred to as the System-in-Focus.

1.1 Sketch some Recursions.

Choose a shape (square, circle. dodecahedron ….) and write in it “ME”. Then draw a larger shape around the ME and draw in the next recursion upwards in which you are embedded. Perhaps it is “bicycle repair shop”. Again, put a larger shape around this one, and write in “maintenance division”.

And so on.

During this process you may want to add other units within the original set of nested recursions, rather like opening a Russian doll to find several identical smaller dolls. For example “ME” will inevitably have “SAM”, “SUE”, “ARTHUR” and “MARY”.

Play with these diagrams until you have a clear idea of what’s going on. A complete mapping will be completely over-the-top, (all 15,000 employees??) but it should be complete enough to have at least one complete recursion at each level.

Like most of the activities which follow the way this works will depend entirely on context. A small work-team will be described adequately by a simple diagram. The social economy of Chile involved fourteen recursions and weeks of work. At the very least, it’s essential to map the recursions immediately above and below your system-in-focus.

1.2    Define your System-in-Focus.

Look at your diagram of the various recursions. The System in Focus might be your whole organisation or one department or it may be a proposed federation of companies. But whatever, you have to be clear about what you are concentrating on. Later there may be lots of diagrams at various levels, and its easy to get distracted into the details of any one of these.

Ideally you should have a huge notice board with (for example) “SYSTEM-IN-FOCUS: My Bike Shop” pinned to it to ensure you are clear about your current focus of attention.

1.3    Write down the Purpose of the System-in-Focus.

At this point, a statement of the PURPOSE for the System-in-Focus should be written down below its name.

This will help to clarify several issues as the diagnosis continues.

Currently, this is being referred to as the Mission Statement, although Aims and Objectives is an equally clear way of expressing it.

Again the point of this is clarity. Once the system-in-focus is defined with a name and a purpose, it’s much easier to keep your attention on the relevant issues.

(The issue of purpose is not as simple as it first appears, and for those of you who wish to read further there is a provocative bit of The Heart of Enterprise in which Beer discusses his ideas. The essence is that Purpose can only be defined as “What a system actually does”. It’s of no use having a purpose of “Bringing down the Capitalist Monster” if what you actually do is sit around and drink coffee all day. What matters is what actually happens. Beer therefore concludes that the purpose of the British railway system is to dissuade him from travelling by rail.)

1.4    List the various parts of your System-in-Focus.

Before starting the Diagnosis and the identification of the systems needed for viability, you should list all the parts of the System-in-Focus as you see them.

The list should be exhaustive as it will be referred to throughout the Preliminary Diagnosis. It will contain the Operational parts, the accounting functions, the management functions and so on.

In compiling the list, keep one eye on your sketch of the various recursions and ensure that the items on the list refer only to the system-in-focus. It’s likely that your first list will need revision and that one or two items will belong to another recursion. Check it carefully.

As the Preliminary Diagnosis proceeds, you will be able to take the items on your list and allocate them to one or other of the 5 systems within the Viable Systems Model. Thus, the list will gradually disappear.

If your organisation is perfectly Viable, the list will disappear completely and there will be 5 well defined systems giving the basis for viability.

If not, either some new jobs may have to invented


some existing jobs are not needed for viability and can therefore be considered as redundant.

Derived from Jon Walker’s VSM Guide for co-ops and federations