The application of supply chain management within the construction industry presents significant challenges due to the transient nature of construction projects, high levels of customization, low repeatability of activities, absence of a production line, and interdependent relationships among activities. Construction supply chains are intricate systems, where the final performance results from numerous decisions made across multiple independent companies. Interactions among supply chain stakeholders and the unique characteristics of each project create complex phenomena with multiple interconnected elements and variables. The Viable System Model (VSM), rooted in organizational cybernetics, provides a structured approach to addressing complex and unstructured problems. This structured approach allows analysts to gain in-depth insights into the functional issues of the existing system and understand how to modify the system design to adapt to internal and external disruptions.
Despite the extensive capabilities of the Viable System Model as a diagnostic tool for assessing organizational structure and achieving viability, a systematic and distinct methodology for its application is lacking. Researchers in VSM often do not employ a specific methodology for systems analysis. In this study, we propose a methodology for applying the VSM as a diagnostic tool for organizations, derived from a review of theoretical foundations and practical requirements of VSM. Building on Jackson's methodology outlined in his book "System Thinking, Creative Holism for Managers," we have developed a methodology by integrating Jackson's approach with case study research. This methodology includes stages such as designing a diagnostic framework, selecting case studies, identifying systems, conducting system diagnosis, and validating the model. We applied this methodology to diagnose the supply chain of an Iranian petrochemical construction project, resulting in the development of a viable system model. The validity of the research methodology and findings was confirmed through expert participation and the application of multiple qualitative criteria.
Following the selection of a case study and the identification of systems, we investigated the existence and function of five subsystems and communication channels within the focal system using a case study approach to gather information and develop the viable system model. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews conducted at various managerial and technical levels within a prominent project-oriented company in Iran's petrochemical industry. These interviews lasted between 45 and 60 minutes each. Data collection methods also included observation and document examination. The research involved a semi-structured interview with 18 individuals to explore complications within each of the five systems. Subsequently, the collected data was adapted to the model's requirements, and findings were extracted through intra-case analysis and coding. This process led to model development and the identification of weaknesses within the construction supply chain from the perspective of the five systems and communication channels, with a focus on achieving viability.
The developed model highlights weaknesses and bottlenecks within the focal system, shedding light on the most significant issues. A critical issue identified in the case study is the evident lack of coherence within System 4 and System 5. The results reveal that the incoherence of System 5, divided between parts of the company at level 0 and the parent company at a higher recursion level outside the focal system, results in defects within the communication channels related to this system, including C14 (Connection of System 4 with System 5), C9 (Algedonic channel), and C16 (Connection of System 5 with the homeostatic loop of Systems 3 and 4). Additionally, System 4, which is jointly managed by a segment of the company and the project management consultant, leads to disruptions in channels related to this system, particularly C13 (Homeostatic loop between Systems 3 and 4), C14 (Communication between System 4 and System 5), and C15 (Homeostat of System 4 with the future environment). Concerning common errors, the dominant error is E5, attributed to the lack of coherence between Systems 4 and 5 and the weak performance of System 2. This error largely stems from inconsistencies between the two operational units responsible for the engineering phase and the construction and installation phase. To achieve viability within the focal system, several measures should be taken, including the establishment of centralized Systems 4 and 5 within the company and strengthening communication channels with incomplete or insufficient capacity. These channels include the connection between System 4 and System 5 (C14), the Algedonic channel (C9), the connection of System 5 with the homeostatic loop of Systems 3 and 4 (C16), the homeostatic loop of System 3 and System 4 (C13), and the homeostat of System 4 with the future environment (C15). A crucial homeostatic link involves the communication and interaction between System 3 and System 4 (C13) to establish dynamic communication between the current project environment and its future. However, the interaction between these two systems is currently conflicting and misaligned due to the lack of coherence within System 4 and differences in functionality between System 3's perspective on the current state and System 4's perspective on the future state. Balancing the emphasis on System 4 and the future with the daily operations of the supply chain's operational units within System 1 is essential to avoid supply chain disruptions or inefficiencies. The lack of coherence within System 4 also affects the performance of other systems, particularly System 5, as well as the stability of System 4 in relation to the future environment. Inadequate information about the future environment can hinder informed decision-making within the system. By addressing these points within the model, the construction project's supply chain can move toward viability and better adapt to changes in the project environment. This research represents one of the limited studies in the implementation of VSM within the construction project environment.