Navigating the white space

Hands-up anyone who doesn't get swamped with email trash. OK, OK … if you don't have a computer, you can leave the room But if you get email, you get trash, right?. I know I do.

Sometimes, though, there's a glimmer or two of surprising value in the deletables. They are going to hate me for saying it, but there's a list I subscribe to, and frequently struggle to find the nuggets in. It's the Deming Electronic Network (DEN for short), to be found at So why don't I just unsubscribe? Because occasionally there's gold in them thar Californian hills.

A few weeks ago, as I happily deleted my way through a long list of incoming DEN messages, I spotted a phrase that rang bells. White space. I love the idea of 'white space'; the gaps between the boxes in organisation charts. The author of the email was Loren Bawn. She wrote: “In my experience, the white space has always been where the action is. I have had the largest impact by acting upon the boundaries between components of a system”.

What does that mean? DEN-izen Frank Voehl was happy to enlarge. I'll summarise (Frank won't mind). The white space is about the flow of products, paper, and information between departments, rather than within departments. It's at the interfaces, or the handoff points – in the white space – that most of the action and the screw-ups occur.

It may seem trivial, or obvious, or obscure to you, but I think that's a real cool insight. White space. Cool? OK, let it go.

It's a key insight because many managers don't understand 'white space'. And, by definition, don't understand their business. When Deming asked managers to picture their business, they would draw typical org charts, boxes and labels. What they would miss are three key pieces:
(1) customers
(2) the products and services provided to customers and
(3) the flow of work.

Because such org charts don't show what they do, who they do it for, or how they do it, they are useless as pictures of a business.

That's OK in a small organisation, Frank wrote, where everybody knows what everyone else does. But as things become more complex, the managers view becomes a liability and instead of 'vision', they develop 'organisational cataracts'. When managers see themselves and others vertically and functionally, they tend to manage vertically and functionally, and not as part of a whole system. 

When that happens, subordinate managers begin to see others as enemies, rather than partners. Silos are built around departments and suboptimisation begins to occur. One of Deming's great contributions was his ability to explain organisations as adaptive systems, with the control mechanism (leadership) that interprets and reacts to the internal and external feedback to keep the system in balance. It is this intelligent use of feedback that is at the heart of what has become known as the Learning Organisation.

Draw your org chart. What happens in the white space? Are you sure?

BACK to the front page
Copyright © 2002 Macpherson Publishing | All rights reserved
If printing and distributing, please leave all logos and site branding intact