The Seven Ss is a framework developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s for analyzing organizations and looking at the various elements that make them successful (or not). The framework has seven aspects, each of them beginning with the letter S, hence the mnemonic:
1. Strategy: the route that the organization has chosen for its future growth.
2. Structure: the way in which the organization is put together; how its different bits relate to each other.
3. Systems: the formal and informal procedures that govern everyday activity; today this increasingly involves the implementation of information technology.
4. Skills: the distinctive capabilities of the people who work for the organization.
5. Shared values: originally called superordinate goals, the things that influence a group to work together for a common aim.
6. Staff: the organization’s human resources.
7. Style: the way in which the organization’s employees present themselves to the outside world, to suppliers and customers in particular.
The Seven Ss helped change managers’ thinking about how companies could be improved. The theory told them that it was not just a matter of devising a new strategy and following it through (as they might have thought before). Nor was it a matter of setting up new systems and letting them generate improvements. To improve, companies had to pay attention to all seven of the Ss at the same time.
The seven were often subdivided into the first three (strategy, structure and systems), referred to as the hard Ss, and the last four, called the soft Ss. All seven are interrelated, so a change in one has a ripple effect on all the others. Hence it is impossible to make progress on one without making progress on all of them.
The theory was developed in the context of the astoundingly rapid progress of Japanese manufacturing companies in the 1960s and 1970s. Western companies, it was said, were better at the hard Ss. But it was because the Japanese combined both hard and soft that they were so much more successful.
Diagrammatically, the seven are usually represented in a circle to convey the idea that they are all of equal significance. No one of them is more important than any other, although Richard Pascal (see article ), the theory’s champion, subsequently gave a special status to super ordinate goals (also known as shared values). These, he said, “provide the glue that holds the other six together”. This positioning of super ordinate goals at the centre of the circle stimulated some of the subsequent work on corporate culture, since culture is to some extent a combination of an organization’s super ordinate goals and its style.
Just as the growth share matrix is powerfully associated with one of the leading strategy consultancies (the Boston Consulting Group), so the Seven Ss is linked with another (McKinsey & Company). It was the seed corn from which grew the idea of excellence and one of the most popular business books ever written (”In Search of Excellence”). Excellent companies were those that excelled in all of the Seven Ss. Pascal subsequently expanded the idea in his book “The Art of Japanese Management”, in which he compared a Japanese company, Matsushita, with an American company, ITT, greatly to the credit of the former.