Tuesday, 21 April 2020


Getting out of the lockdown. 

Variety Engineering 

I´ve been writing about  “Enterprise Complexity Models” recently (Espejo, 2018). I have grounded this model in the Viplan Methodology (Espejo, 1993, Espejo and Reyes, 2011), and think they have something to say about COVID-19 as a huge problematic situation. Graphically the Viplan methodology is built up with two concentric learning loops (Observing, naming, designing and implementing); 
  • the inner (cybernetic) loop which elaborates the structure of an enterprise relevant to a problem situation, like the sustainability of our society and planet, or more diretly like COVID-19. The enterprise needs good structural conversations to handle effectively problem situations. 
  • The outer (problem solving) loop is focused on particular problem situations, such as the enterprise's contribution to the sustainability of social health in its environment, or more directly to the health of people. 
The Viable System Model -VSM- (Beer, 1979)  clarifies necessary conversations that often restrict proper communications between organisational actors and work out who are the right people to participate in these conversations throughout an enterprise to discuss the problematic issue. The VSM help visualisation the structural conditions most conducive to appropriate conversations leading to effective action. In the Viplan Methodology, 
  • the cybernetic -inner- loop encourages stakeholders to question the structures underpinning their problem solving relationships in the context of the enterprise's purposes. The common situation is that these structures inhibit to different degrees these problem solving processes and the purpose of the cybernetic -inner- loop is making the enterprise's structure more effective. As this happens the enterprise's improved cybernetics, facilitates better conversations to improve the enterprise's management of problem situations. 
  • In the learning - outer loop- stakeholders take advantage of the enabling structures to engage in processes of continual learning about this situation, such as sustainable individuals' health. They engage in problematic issues, agree about any changes that they want to make to improve the situation. 
  • The two loops are reflexive in the sense, that as the cybernetics of the enterprise improves in the inner loop, the collective appreciation of their problem situations  becomes more sophisticated in the outer loop and better appreciation of these situations are reflected in changed conversations and structures in the inner loop, recursively. 

I will focus applying Viplan to COVID-19 on the UK National Health Service  (NHS) as the enterprise in the Inner Cybernetic Loop. The Outer Loop is the hugely complex management of COVID-19, the pandemic that we are experiencing at the present time. The situation is one of an extended network of enterprises, including many government enterprises, dealing with COVID-19. From the perspective of complexity, and in particular of the NHS, this enterprise is experiencing a situation of huge imbalance of its complexity with that of the population being affected by the pandemic. From the perspective of variety engineering (Espejo & Reyes, 2011) the challenge is working out a selection of variety operators to balance the NHS complexity with that of the population experiencing the corona virus. The design and selection of these operators is particularly relevant in today’s globalised and environmentally sensitive, societies. Most of this variety needs to be absorbed within the communities themselves, leaving a residual variety manageable by the enterprise's variety operators. These operators define an enterprise’s new strategies to produce and make available their products and services, intertwined with the technologies-in-use. Each of these decisions generates complexity that the organisational system needs to contain structurally in ways that enhance its capacity to respond to environmental pressures. The current pandemic  offers an instance of mismatches between variety operators; the diagnostic tests necessary to work out numbers of infected people, and also numbers of people already possessing antibodies,  seem to be out of sync with the operational capacity of the health service (capabilities of hospitals and research laboratories). Increasing hospital capabilities, to receive infected people, requires amplification of variety of hospitals and other services, such as ambulances and medical general practices. At the same time, learning about infected people and people with antibodies requires reducing the variety of the overall population to those at risk and those with limited risk if they remain at the front end of health and other economic services. The overall performance to counter the COVID-19 pandemic requires managing the balancing of ongoing interactions between people in the community and health services, that is, between people demanding services (amplifying demand) and health delivering services reducing the variety of those in  need (attenuating demand). As the Viplan Methodology suggests, structurally this implies going beyond the National Health Service to create a much larger Enterprise Complexity Model (ECM), enabled by powerful scientific models and by autonomous units, within autonomous units (i.e. a recursive structure). 

This is a heuristic in the generation of ECMs. As new technologies and scientific models suggest alternative structural and technological models, most likely their structural mapping will require an alternative unfolding of complexity that is, new considerations about the distribution of autonomy and discretion (Espejo and Reyes, 2011). These are platforms to work out necessary structural changes in the NHS, using the VSM, to increase reflexively the quality of the network of enterprises responding to COVID-19. In the extreme the situation may show that the current extended transformation of the NHS is unviable, suggesting that before reconfiguring its resources, it may need questioning its identity and purposes altogether; I hope that this will not be the case for COVID-19. 

ECMs offer different strategies to manage an enterprise’s complexity.  New scientific models and technologies are changing the nature of these enterprises. From the point of view of attenuating the pandemic, people’s distancing has been driven by scientific models, and the construction of new health facilities has been driven by amplifying building complexity through new technologies. In these cases key business functions such as finance, personnel are likely to remain centralised reducing the scope for entrepreneurship at lower structural levels. In this example, at a first glance, the unfolding of complexity is likely to be skewed towards the top. In other words the scope for local autonomy appears to be restricted by the product and its technology. However, this needs not be so. Similarly, these local enterprises might well be networks of more specialised enterprises, whose viability is equally necessary, and so forth. 

These examples highlight the amplification and attenuation of an enterprise’s complexity driving the emergence of an ECM. In the NHS’s case, it is clear that in addition to the amplification of its activities it needs attenuators of environmental complexity. Without effective means to reduce undesirable local variations as a result of people´s behaviours and resources (e.g. people’s distancing to 2m.), that is, as a result of weak amplification of government’s policies to attenuate local communities’ behaviours, the overall performance of the NHS and society will suffer (e.g. more infections and deaths). This latter aspect shows that developing mechanisms for organisational cohesion, which respect the autonomy of their suppliers but also standardise their products, are necessary for services viability. Furthermore, it needs to manage relationships between subcontractors, customers and a range of other agents. The more the NHS and its regional and local units enable direct interactions among local suppliers and between these and people in the community, the more of its environmental variety will be absorbed in the environment itself, reducing the residual variety that the Government and the NHS  needs to manage directly. Similarly, there are a range of variety operators that the NHS needs designing in order to have an effective ECM. Also, it needs making viable its own enterprise transformation; that is, its orthogonal transformation to those transformations of the hospitals and services constituting the organisational system it leads. Say, it needs capacity to create, design and implement networks (i.e. its own primary activities) to support local clinical services, which are the platform for the ECM own learning. These platforms are  its strength and also its Achilles heel. It offers the strength of the great flexibility to reconfigure resources and develop new capabilities should the circumstances so require, but it has the challenge of building up relationships with distributed enterprises which use different standards and make, among other aspects, more difficult complying with safety and security  requirements.

Based on the above considerations,  supported by variety engineering the Viplan Methodology suggests managing people's current situation of lockdown towards a strategy aimed at reducing costs to society and people. Beyond the excessive centralisation of decisions at the level of the UK's Cabinet, it is necessary to consider more targeted measures under  local organisational systems, constituted by decentralised local health authorities, local authorities and local enterprises integrating their responses. I'm proposing to discuss the integrated use of variety attenuators and amplifiers in the communities. In other words, getting out of the lockdown requires considering together variety attenuators of community aspects such as age, health profile, geography and sophistication of local services and variety amplifiers like levels of testing in the community and also sophistication of local services, to really be able to isolate cases and more effectively identify where transmission is happening to support with reduced risk getting out of the current lockdown.


1979 Beer S. The Hearth of Enterprise. Wiley, Chichester
2018 Espejo R. An Enterprise Complexity Model: Enterprises, Organizational Systems, and Dynamic Capabilities in F. Stowell Systems Research for Real-World Challenges.IGI Global. Hershey, USA
2011 Espejo R. and A. Reyes Organisational Systems: Managing Complexity with the Viable System Model, Springer, Heidelberg