Robert N. Phillips
CEO, Lasotell Pty Ltd.

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

How often have you been discussing what could be done to resolve a perceived problem situation when you or someone else said, “If it were up to me, I would do <this>”? Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is about understanding what took place in the speaker’s mind to formulate the <this>. It is also about determining if the <this> is, in fact, complete, comprehensive, desirable, and feasible.

In the simplest view, what took place in the speaker’s mind was: formulating a view of the situation, extracting the key differences between that view and reality, and putting the most pertinent differences forward as corrective actions. But have you also noticed that, in all but the simplest situations (or when the boss is speaking), the speaker’s contribution is generally swallowed up by the tide of events and life in general? Because SSM brings rigour and coherency to this overall process, it facilitates selecting and implementing the most appropriate and commonly agreed upon activities. These statements must be qualified because a methodology, in contrast to a method and especially in contrast to a technique, cannot guarantee or ensure the outcome. But the logical assertion is that the outcome will be better for following a rigorous and coherent approach versus a wandering ant approach.

What I have just said may sound vaguely familiar because SSM is actually a formal description (and understanding) of the mental processes we perform, to some degree or other, whenever we make non-trivial decisions. The value of understanding, and subsequently internalising, the methodology is that we gain an independent ruler for checking the sanity and completeness of the thinking and the decision?making processes—especially when dealing with a messy, real-world problem situation. In this article, I summarise taking an SSM approach, but you will need to read Peter Checkland’s book, Soft Systems Methodology in Action (Wiley 2003), to be able to work with SSM properly.

The processes for investigating a perceived problem situation take place on several fronts and can be in any order. In the first front, you get as many views of the problem situation as is sensible—usually everyone has a different internal view of what happens. Of particular interest is each person’s opinion of what works and what does not. The second front is what SSM calls analysis one, two, and three. These analyses are not sequential, just different. Analysis one seeks to identify who is the client (usually the person(s) who caused the investigation to take place), who is the problem solver (usually the person(s) making the investigation), and who are the problem owners. The latter is an interesting concept, because the problem solver assigns the problem owners. They are any persons or entities that have an interest in the outcome of the investigation. As such, problem owners also have their views of the situation.

Analysis two is concerned with understanding the social and cultural aspects of the problem situation. What are the norms, values, and nature of the social interactions that take place in the environment of the problem situation and of the overall situation?Analysis three is concerned with understanding the politics of the problem situation and, in particular, the commodities of power (the means by which power is obtained and expressed). This analysis is particularly relevant to appreciating that, through the interplay of the powers involved, the differing interests of the people will finally be accommodated.

Once all this information starts becoming available, we can begin to consider what systems, in the everyday sense of that term, might be useful in terms of elucidating the real problem(s) within the problem situation. These systems are defined as a system to do what, by whom, to achieve what end. These definitions are intended to be high-level (called root definitions), and they fall into two categories—primary task and issue based&mdsah;but we will skip that distinction in this summary. Sometimes, once you actually try to define several plausible systems in this way, the scope and perspective of what we thought was the underlying normal situation starts to change. To help formulate such systems, you also need to consider the constituents of the system, summarised as CATWOE—customers, actors, transformation, worldview, owner, and environment.

The customers are the recipients or victims of the system. The actors operate the system. The transformation is the actual change that is applied to the system’s input to transform it into the output. The transformation needs careful consideration. If the input to the system is not transformed, then the system has not done any useful work. Filling in a blank form with data received as an input and sending the form on its way is an example of a transformation—the form of the data has changed (and we hope it has become informative).

The worldview is the overall perspective taken in creating this system. For example, consider a system for an independent body to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. If the independent body were Robin Hood, the worldview of that system would be quite different for the Sheriff of Nottingham, the peasants, and the nobility. Similarly, if the independent body were the government, the worldview of the taxpayers, businesses, and the welfare recipients would also be very different.

The owner has the authority to stop the transformation process. Typically, the owner is close to the process but superior to it. The system operates within the environment—the constraints that are typically treated as givens for the situation. (One thing SSM teaches you is to never assume that the givens are unalterable—they require as much consideration as everything else.)

A root definition is usually supported by what SSM calls rich pictures—typically, hand drawn because they are quick sketches of the activities and relationships implied by the workings of the root definition. They consist of five to nine clouds (not neat, computer-drawn circles!). The text describing the activity of each bubble is verbose—clauses rather than a single, simple phrase (for example, provide, create, make, receive, appreciate this <thing>, with bullet lists, and so on).

Once the activities of the root definition have been drawn, they are enclosed in their own cloud and three external clouds are added to show the communication and control components. These are required because, first, we are drawing holons, so by definition, communication and control elements must be present, and second, drawing them forces us to actively consider the monitoring task in more detail. SSM requires us to consider holons (and any resultant changes) in terms of at least three, but preferably, five Es: Is the system at least effective, efficient, and efficacious, and even better, is it elegant and ethical? The first three Es assist in determining what to monitor. For example, effective means that the system works—what parameter(s) can you use to monitor that the system is actually working? Efficient means the system is using minimum resources, which is obviously measurable, and efficacious means that the transformation is satisfying the long-term goals of the owner (and those goals will have measurable components). So, one cloud is the task of determining what to monitor, one cloud is the monitoring task, and the last cloud is the control task—to take controlling action when the monitoring task indicates it is required.

In the final article in this series, I will draw together all the articles from the “what is in this for me” perspective.


Soft Systems Methodology in Action
Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes
2000, New York, NY
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0471986054