Looking at organisational systems means acknowledging that few problems are clear cut, and few solutions are uncontentious. What we typically find is a ‘mess’ of issues which, as managers and change agents, we have to map out and navigate for our organisations to survive and prosper.

Just as Deming's System of Profound Knowledge offers four windows for looking at processes, we can consider four windows* through which to view organisational systems. Each window gives a different insight into the situation, and hence offers a different perspective on intervention.

The first window is that of processes. These have been the ‘flavour of the month’ for much of the past 15-20 years. Whether workplace level continuous improvement, or organisation wide reengineering, there has been a persistent focus on improving the ‘how’ of doing business, notably through Lean Six Sigma initiatives. Yet Lean Six Sigma programs have a variable rate of uptake and success, perhaps through failing to consider the other critical dimensions of the business.

The second window is that of structure. Whilst most process improvement focuses on ‘end to end’ processes or ‘eliminating silos’, we have not made much progress in coming up with a methodology for organisational design. Looking at structure leads us to Stafford Beer's Viable System Model, which uses cybernetic principles to support rational design based on analysis of optimal flows of communication and control. The objective is to maximise the flexibility and responsiveness of the organisation to adapt to change and demands at the appropriate level — that is, neither too centrally nor with too much low level discretion. The VSM is a natural complement to process improvement. (See the drop down menu for more on the VSM).

The first two windows are "positivist" - they presume there is some reality "out there" that can be ascertained by observation and analysis independent of who is investigating. The third and fourth windows are "constructivist" - they introduce a degree of subjectivity by incorporating each participant's perspective in a collective reality that includes the observer as well as the observed.

The third window is that of systems of meaning. Because organisations are human constructs, they are subject to human interpretation. We each project our assumptions, our biases, and our mental models onto whatever ‘reality’ is out there. This means that we must be able to deal with conflict and confusion arising from differing perceptions. We can employ a variety of tools for dealing with this, depending on the degree of fragmentation and the intensity of the conflict. 

The fourth window is that of knowledge and power, that is to say who gets a say in organisational decisions. We are seeking to optimise the ‘big picture’ system by involving all the parties who have a claim on the future of the organisation and its immediate environment. By building diversity into our decision making, we reduce conflict due to lack of consultation.

Each of these windows leads to choices regarding the selection of methodologies and the mode of their deployment.

* the "four windows" representation is based on the work of Robert Flood.