Free Release – Viable System Model Canvas

The VSM in a nutshell

It’s a very special day for me! Why? Because I am very excited to release  the …

Viable System Model Canvas.

It all began about 24 months ago when I started this project (or product?). This outcome (or output?) is my recent development to get a step closer to make the model more well known, accessible and … applied. So the outcome is hopefully a useful simplification, but not a trivialization of the original ideas and theory. This canvas has been used in Agile/Lean IT and software contexts and served as a map of the organization. The purpose of the canvas: Analyze and design an organization according to the patterns of viability – and create an overview of all the (major) processes, roles, meetings and tools for each system.

For the VSM connoisseurs: The interpretation of System 3* is open for debate. Some people see the function of S3* quite different and associate it with a controlling function, e.g. operated by a Compliance Department or something similar. From my perspective that would create stress for the organization. The argument: If one takes Stafford Beers original approach into account, then it is obvious that 3* as the Parasympathikus has the function to “relax” the system. Therefore it seems logical to map activities like Retrospectives or Gemba Walks to S3* – the system needs times of action AND reflection. Like Stafford Beer wrote in “Diagnosing the System”: This system operates only sporadic and is not a continuous activity. In other words – a functioning Compliance Department is part of S2. However, sometimes it might be part of 3*. But not always.

The Viable System Model Canvas

Finally, here it is.

Download Viable System Canvas – Easy View

How to use the Canvas

At first I have to state that the following tips are only for those, who have already a general idea of what the VSM is about. Otherwise it could be hard to understand the result of the following exercise. This step-by-step guide may help you if you want to use it with a bunch of people. If your group is too large, you may use some of the Liberating Structures or a World Cafe for each system in the Canvas. It’s up to you. 🙂

  1. Define your System in Focus and the Recursion Level you want to explore.
  2. Project the Canvas on a huge white wall. Take care that everyone has a pen and enough stickies.
  3. Explore the environment and distinct at least the “outer world” and the “in world” of the System in Focus. For a deep exploration you can use my environment model.
  4. Start with the value (proposition) production and map the flow of value towards the customer (System 1). Identify the processes, roles, meetings and tools. This sequence of aspects applies to any system within the Canvas. I will refer to this as structural aspects. Think about a color code regarding the structural aspects. This exercise is about ‘seeing’ – not watching. Typical tools: Process Mapping, Material & Information flows
  5. Look at the short term coordination and the supporting infrastructure that “balances” the System in Focus. Identify the structural aspects of System 2. Examples: Daily or Shopfloor Meeting.
  6. Answer the question, how to coordinate the Value Production in order to create synergies and an explosion of potential. Identify the structural aspects of System 3. Examples: Sprint Planning, Team Weekly, Jour Fixe.
  7. Now ask yourself, how the System in Focus generates insights? How does it inspect and adapt? Typical System 3* activities: Retros, After Action Reviews, Gemba Walks but also Red Teaming.
  8. In this step you look at the long term development, strategies and experiments going on. Again: Find the overarching structural aspects in System 4. Typical tools: PI Planning, Portfolio Management, Theory of Constraints, Strategy and Innovation Methodologies.
  9. Understand the structural aspects which constitute the identity of the System in Focus (System 5, Ethos & Identity). But watch out and keep the formal and informal structure of this system in mind. Typical artifacts: Purpose, Vision, Mission, Values
  10. The last step focuses on the overall picture. Guiding Question: Which misbalances do you see? Too many or too little meetings? Confusion about roles? Bad link between strategy and tactics? Unfair resource bargain? Many aspects could pop up, so I can’t give any further advice – it really depends. A gold mine for consultants and coaches 🙂


The price of simplification

As always in nature there is no advantage with a corresponding disadvantage. Therefore I had to pay a price and abdicate the fractal nature of the model – it is not directly visible. This must be taken into account, if one uses the canvas above.

If you want to be very explicit about the recursion levels, then this template might be useful.

Download Viable System Model Canvas – Nested View

One could also use the above mentioned steps for the nested canvas, which shows two recursion levels. If you need more than the shown two Systems 1, then use a vector program and edit the PDF. All files are compatible with Adobe Illustrator and can be modified.


My greatest thanks to Alenna Leonard, Angela Espinosa, Jon Walker, Ralf-Eckhardt Türke and Ivo Velitchkov for their endorsement and support. And my wife Renata – she knows why. 😉

Legal terms

These files are published under the license formerly know as Public Domain. It is free – for any use, no credit necessary (even though I would be glad if I am mentioned as author).

I wish you happy experimenting!

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