Whole-System Architecture (WSA) is designed to create unity of purpose, a unified understanding of values; alignment of systems and structure; and, alignment to strategy. It is also a change methodology of co-creation, creating and designing the house in which you live. The human body is a whole-system with sub-systems (nervous system, digestive, cardiovascular system, etc.) These systems are inter-dependent and the failure of one can result in the failure of the entire system. Similarly, every organization is a whole-system comprised of subsystems such as the information systems, the organization structure, decision-making systems, hiring, training, motivation and others. The degree to which these systems are aligned with each other, and aligned to the requirements of the external environment, the organization will succeed. Unfortunately, most organizations do not have a process to create this alignment.
I recommend these two articles for a more in-depth explanation of WSA, also known as High Performance Organization (HPO) design, or Socio-Technical Systems (STS) design. It’s all the same thing.
Lean management, or Toyota Production System, is a whole-system. Most efforts to implement lean focus on some subsystems and not others. They often fail because of this failure to create alignment. For example, if you want employees to engage in continuous improvement they must be organized into teams that know their process. This requires knowledge of performance, information flow to the team. For a team to function well, they must have training and coaching to develop their capacity to solve problems. If they are to sustain improvement efforts there must be some system of motivation to encourage their efforts. Each of these are sub-systems that must be designed as a whole-system.
There are many ways to illustrate the whole-system of an organization. One is to recognize that there are numerous external forces acting on the organization. The ability to adapt and change is a requirement because of changes in the external forces. These include technology, customer preferences, the economy, etc. What is within an organization can be divided into its technical systems (core work process, equipment, technology), the supporting social systems (structure, skills, communication, motivation, etc.), and the economic system (all the financial inputs and outputs).
The essence of strategy is recognizing threats and opportunities presented by the external environment and then responding to those in a way that aligns the organizational systems to meet those challenges. In other words, if the future of marketing our products is going to be through the Internet and social media, with single day response and delivery to customers, virtually every system in the organization needs to aligned to achieve success in that system. You have to intentionally design that system. The old system will likely not have that capability. Continuous improvement will not get you there. Intentional redesign will.
Most strategic planning is focused on creating externally facing strategy. In other words, what does the market want? What are the financial requirements to meet the needs of shareholders? What market position are we trying to achieve? These are all important questions. But, they do not address the internal capability of the organization to perform. If our strategy calls upon us to meet the needs of a new market or employ new technologies, there is a need to develop new internal capabilities. Strategy execution, according to the Conference Board, is the number one problem faced by CEO’s of major corporations. They report that most strategy execution either fails or falls short. Why? Because of the failure to create the internal capabilities that enable an organization to execute strategy. This is why I developed my course on Strategy Execution. And, this is why a whole-system approach is required to achieve successful strategy execution.
Whole-System Architecture as a Change Methodology
Whole-system architecture is a change management methodology that recognizes the organization as a living, organic whole that must change in a coordinated way; and to do so in a way that will maximize the commitment and ownership of those who live within the organization. The first principle of managing change is that we are committed to that which we help to create. Conversely, we will not be committed to something that is imposed on or sold to us, no matter how good the sales pitch.
There is what I call the Habitat for Humanity principle. Habitat for Humanity builds homes for the disadvantaged. They learned an important lesson about sustainability. They do not just build a home and give it to a family. It is a requirement that members of the family must participate in the building of the house. They hammer nails, carry wood and use the paint brush. By doing this they are far more likely to care for and maintain that home. Their participation makes the home and the community more sustainable. The exact same thing is true of change within organizations. Habitats mission statement says “We view our work as successful when it transforms lives and promotes positive and lasting social, economic and spiritual change within a community; when it is based on mutual trust and fully shared accomplishment; and when it demonstrates responsible stewardship of all resources entrusted to us.” This would be a good mission statement for almost any corporate change process. It must not only move equipment around and speed a production process. It must transform the lives of those within the organization. It must promote positive and lasting social, as well as economic change. Then you will have commitment.
Consultants may be useful to guide the process and to ask questions that can help your people think creatively. However, it must never be the consultant’s design. He or she must never own it. It must be owned by those who will then implement it. It is their house and they will live in it.
It is recommended that this process be an “inter-active” planning process with an executive steering team who gives the process direction and authority; and design teams comprised of members of the organization who are responsible for the following four stages of Discovery, Dream, Design and Development. These two lead groups will seek ways to involve as many as possible in the organization to gain the broadest possible engagement.
This design team will receive a “charter” from the steering team and this charter will provide clear guidance as to the objectives of their work and the boundaries of what they may and may not redesign. The design team will ultimately report back their design and recommendations for implementation.
Principles of Whole-System Architecture
The following principles underlie the Whole-System Architecture methodology.
- The organization is a complex system that requires alignment of its parts to the same goals and purpose.
- Design the organization as an open-system that adapts to its environment and aligns with the requirements of its environment.
- The design should optimize the opportunity for its members to work as natural work teams, to learn from each other, and achieve the intrinsic satisfaction that can be derived from enriching jobs.
- The organization design should be done by the “world’s greatest experts” and those who design should implement that which they have designed. Enlarge the circle of involvement as you implement but do not lose the understanding of those who did the analysis and design of the new system.
- Shared principles create unity of systems, processes, and people and must be applied at all levels and across all functions.
- How you change is the change. The process used for designing the organization should be compatible with how the organization will function in the future.
- Design for variance control at the point closest to the origin of deviation. Immediate feedback loops enable immediate improvement or solving problems that create variances. Design in feedback loops to minimize wasteful errors.
- The purpose of the organization is to meet the needs of its customers. Involve the customer and focus on meeting customer requirements.
- Appreciation and understanding of human needs and values should be reflected in the design. Design for the growth of human potential including expanded multi-skilled work, job rotation, load-leveling and expanded decision-making.
- Expect an imperfect design, with no fear of failure, but opportunity for learning and continuous improvement.
- Design to an ideal or future state beyond your “village.” Every company and every industry is a village or tribe that assumes the norms within. Look outside and beyond for models of excellence.
- Engage in appreciate inquiry to find centers of excellence within your organization and incorporate those lessons.
- All complex living systems contain processes of self-organization. Allow for and promote self-organizing processes within the design.