JUST A THOUGHT: A VSM Case Study
This Case Study is taken from David Wastell's Managers as Designers in the Public Sector:
Stafford Beer's Viable Systems Model is certainly of interest theoretically, as a way of thinking about the design of organisations. It is also useful as a diagnostic tool for probing and critiquing the design of actual organisations, attempting to pin-point areas where the current settlement is dysfunctional. With Peter Kawalek, I applied it in the late 1990s as a consulting tool first in a major IT organisation and subsequently in a UK manufacturing organisation, known by the pseudonym Heather Manufacturing Systems (HMS).
The subject of the latter analysis was the Sales Department. Following a long period of stability, in which 80% of sales had been to a single UK customer, the company had diversified itself into new markets across the whole of Europe. The Sales team had led this expansion; they had shown themselves to be innovative and entrepreneurial and, over a short period, 75% of orders now came from abroad. Despite this, Sales faced ever more ambitious targets and they decided they needed their own Sales Information System, being dissatisfied with the services they were receiving from the centralised IS function. Work began in 1997 on the project, dubbed the Whole Europe Information System for Sales (WEISS). It was developed by the sales staff themselves using Lotus Notes. The case for such a local development rested on the assumption that Sales had a high degree of local autonomy. However, although strategically aligned for Sales, WEISS seemed to be causing problems in the wider organisation. In particular, delivery time problems were on the increase, as a result of Sales staff quoting unrealistic estimates. Customers were becoming frustrated and there were signs that market share was being affected.
VSM was used in our analysis, which involved mapping real world teams and departments onto the conceptual structure of the model. In simple terms, our analysis served to challenge the assumption of Sales’ autonomy. In fact, they were closely and critically involved in a range of dependent interactions with other parts of the organisation, especially with Production. Both in the processing of new orders and the production of new parts, they had significant influence over scheduling decisions, though this was often informal and could be highly disruptive (for instance, when sales engineers went straight to the factory floor intervening directly in production decisions in the interests of favoured clients). Our main conclusion was on the need to formalise collaboration between Sales and Production. Accordingly, we recommended that a successful information strategy would have to recognise this: “the need to share information about scheduling between the Sales, Production and Engineering teams should be a prime concern”. We recommended that the WEISS project be developed to “come under the ownership of more teams than just Sales and hence address IS issues from a broader standpoint”.
Credits and references:
Sir Stafford Beer