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Lumberjacks, Bars and Shopping, an introduction to the Viable Systems Model.

A friend who is interested in People and Organsiations asked for a description of the Viable Systems Model that wasn’t Too-Long/Didn’t-Read. I’ve applied the Viable Systems Model (VSM) to Michael Palin’s Lumberjack Sketch in Monty Python. Applying the VSM to Monty Pythons Cheese Shop sketch is left to the reader.

I like looking at things through different perspectives. What one perspective may miss another may make obvious, and I like interesting ideas as much as ‘correct’ ones. While it’s important to make sure you know which context your theory works in, I find checking out things with a few models can be illuminating.

If you’re interested in how what some does fits in with how they organise themselves, manage their time and what it says about who they are this article will be of interest. The approach was designed for understanding big organisations, this into is simplified and a bit silly.

What is the Viable Systems Model?

The VSM describes how organisations work and fit together. I know a little about the VSM, so I’ll be looking at the way Monty Pythons lumberjack fits the VSM.

Through a VSM lens, organisations are like Russian dolls with Viable Organisations within Viable Organisations. I don’t include the company the lumberjack will work for, or the organisations that need to exist to supply lumberjacking tools. We can infer that our lumberjack needs to be within a larger organisation that needs wood, and there will be other Viable Organisations to provide lavatories and buttered scones.

The Viable Systems Model is a lens to look at a situation. I like to look at things through more than one lens. I find the VSM has a perspective other lenses don’t.


I’m applying the VSM to lumberjacks in a simple introductory way that is hopefully not Too Long; Didn’t Read, or Too Wrong; Didn’t Read.


He’s a Lumberjack and he’s OK

You can watch and sing along with the Monty Python sketch on the link below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfRdur8GLBM

The Viable Systems Model is often applied to organisations and their financially viability in their environment. This is the case for our lumberjack too, but I’ll be focusing on him having his life together, being congruent in what he does, who he wants to be and what his values and aspirations are.

Aspiring to be a Lumberjack.

VSM can be used to see if you have your life together for your own needs, and in the opinion of others you care about.

How I’ll apply the VSM to Lumberjacks

Rather than try to show the model up front, I’m going to describe the Lumberjack, and point out the bits where the model can be seen.

The VSM model has 5 parts, numbered 1 to 5. It uses numbers as the names can change when applying to different sorts of organisations or businesses. I’ll refer to how these show up for our Lumberjack and use VSM1, VSM2 in brackets. If you have the parts of the model to hand you can quickly apply to new situation.

I’m a Viable Lumberjack: Applying the VSM.

Cutting down tree = Lumberjack

Our Lumberjack has an identity, a lifestyle. ’I cut Down Trees’ is enough to be a Lumberjack. And we can see that the Canadian Mounties agree.

Sleeping all night and Working all day is also an appropriate allocation of time the Mounties agree with.

We’ve just covered three parts of a VSM model. Firstly there is the stuff you do, and the identity you have.
The Identity of a Lumberjack (VSM 5) means Cut Down Trees (VSM1). You need to manage the allocation of your Resources (VMS3) and you do all this in an environment of Canadian Mounties. Our Mounties seem to approve of this allocation of time to activities.

What you do (& what is done by an organisation) is VSM System1

It’s also worth pointing out that being a Lumberjack requires Lumberjacking

There are other things that are done by our Lumberjack. Eating lunch and going to the Lavatory need to be done to stay alive.

Eating your lunch and going to lavatory is a resourcing (S3) issue. Anyone spending too long on a lunch break or at the loo in a factory job will be well aware of this.

VSM System 3 allocates resources
VSM System 5 is concerned with Identity

To recap, 2 verses in and we have

  • What you do (S1). Cut Down Trees
  • Allocation of Resources (S3) – between Sleep and Work
  • An Identity (S5) – Lumberjack
  • An Environment, Mounties, and his Girlfriend.

Your identity isn’t entirely yours.

We can see the approval of our mounties as they sing along.

The Mounties are not sure…

Our Mounties are not too happy with ‘buttered scones for tea’ especially as we already have ’eat my lunch’, and they start to question our lumberjacks Identity (S5).

If the opinion of Mounties is important to lumberjacks it’s possible that them saying “Hey, you’re no lumberjack” could be fairly devastating. And maybe there is another environment where there are different ideas of what a lumberjack can do.

In the next verse, putting on women’s clothing to hang around in bars. Mounties pull faces here, and nearly give up singing, but cutting down trees, sleeping all night and working all day is a strong enough signal that everything is OK again.

The things you do (S1) contribute to your identity (S5). Being seen to do things that appear to others to be incongruent with your identity can be a problem. Like a cheese shop that doesn’t sell cheese.

We allocate resources (S3) on what we do (S1) affecting our Identity(S5).

The rest of the model

There are other bits of a viable system we can infer need to exist. If they don’t exist we can infer there may be trouble. In a nutshell, that’s how the VSM diagnoses issues.

All our lumberjacking activities requires planning and co-ordination:

  • Cutting down Trees
  • Eating Lunch
  • Going to the Lavatory
  • Going Shopping on Wednesdays
  • Having buttered scones for tea
  • Putting on women’s clothing
  • Hanging around in bars

All need co-ordinating (S2).

Many of my Lumberjack friends organise what they do on a whiteboard. They have “Go shopping” filled in on Wednesdays, ‘Cut down trees’ on the other days apart from Wednesdays, and often contain a reminder to change clothes between Lumberjacking and hanging around in bars.

Depending if there are toilets on site, going to the lavatory may also need to be co-ordinated to when a lavatory is nearby.

A lumberjacks whiteboard

When can we start pressing flowers?

Allocating time & resources (S3) for ‘buttered scones’ and ‘pressing wild flowers’ implies less time for cutting down trees (S1)

Getting our resourcing wrong can also affect our identity (S5) and our ability to function. Too little time spent cutting down trees will mean the lumberjack identity (S5) is hard to keep.

We also need to look to the future (in fact, the entire sketch is looking to the future, I’ll come back to that at the end). We need to look at the future environment for changes that we need to make like learning a new kind of way to cut down trees, to keep the lumberjack identity.

We can also change our environment. If this environment does not support us, we can find or create another.


Looking for changes required in the future is VSM System4

So when our lumberjack looks to the future (Future-S4) to spend time (Resourcing- S3) to put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars (S1 activities), it will be co-ordinated by the same mechanism (co-ordination S2) that has shopping on Wednesdays, and ideally keeps shopping and bars separate, ideally not arriving at the bar with shopping bags as the other people (environment) may look at you a bit funny.

I only WANT to be a Lumberjack…

The start of the Monty Python shows our lumberjack as a barber who is looking to the future to see if being a lumberjack is a viable fulfilling job that fits in with what he want outside of lumberjacking.

He gets some useful feedback from the Mounties and his girlfriend that maybe it isn’t. He doesn’t seem bothered. He hasn’t had to move and retrain to find this out. Maybe he’s going to try out imagining a few other jobs to see if they work out better?

Overview of the VSM

Your identity emerges from what you do. If you put on women’s clothing, hang around in bars your environment may decide that you no longer have the identity of a lumberjack. Like the Lumberjacks girlfriend.

To be viable you need to find an environment to be viable in, and you need to do things that get you what you need.

In use the VSM is a bit like a Business Model Canvas – you need to make sure all the boxes are filled in correctly and all work together, and connections between the boxes and the environment are all working as expected.

The full VSM has a few more parts, but they are not required to have a ‘wrong but useful’ model.

I’ve took some liberties with the VSM here to keep this short, there are a lot of connections between the systems I’ve not covered.

To apply the VSM to a current situation look at which bits are missing, and if they are working together OK.

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