Part 3 – How to use SSM in practice?
Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a powerful approach to complexity management developed by Peter Checkland and Brian Wilson in Lancaster University Management School. SSM is based on the notion of human activity systems. Although it produces models of such systems, these are not supposed to represent the “real world”. However by using systems principles, these models allow you to structure your thinking about the real world.
At the heart of SSM, is a comparison between the real world and some models of human activity systems. Out of this comparison arises a better understanding of the situation and consensus for action.
What is a human activity system? In a word, it is a formula. In abstract terms, an example would be “A system to do X, by Y in order to do Z”. You can think of as many human activity systems as you like, but to ensure a sufficient level of rigor they must obey to a particular formulation rules. The famous CATWOE abbreviation is of particular assistance here. But when constructing a human activity system it is important for everything to flow from the core transformation that a given human activity system operates. One way of ensuring this is to construct the CATWOE in the following order:
1. Transformation – what fundamental change is made to the systems’ inputs? In what outputs are they converted?
2. Weltanschauung – what is the fundamental worldview that makes this transformation relevant?
3. Customer – who is the beneficiary of this systems’ transformation.
4. Actors – who enacts this transformation?
5. Owners – who can stop this system to operate?
6. Environment – what are the significant external constraints that can impact the systems’ operations?
An interesting example from Bob William’s work in the Kellogg Foundation uses the world-view that inspiring stories about sustainable agriculture can impact on public opinion and consumer behavior. We can draft the following systems definition: “A Foundation sponsored system operated by their stakeholders creates a set of good news stories about consumer use of sustainable agricultural products that allow lobbyists to use them as part of their policy development levers.”
This Soft System’s CATWOE would be:
Customers = sustainable agriculture lobbyists
Actors = project evaluators, farmers, retailers, Sustainable Food Collaboration staff
Transformation = preponderance of bad stories replaced by a preponderance of good stories
Weltanschauung = stories bring about pressure for social change
Owner = The Foundation
Environment = established practice, isolated area, poverty, and lack of investment capital.
Using the “root definition” for this human activity system (an abstract system) you draw up a conceptual model using systems conventions. There are different ways of doing this, but Checkland recommends that beginners follow the process below:
1. Using verbs in the imperative write down activities necessary to carry out the Transformation (T in CATWOE). Aim for 7±2 activities that are at the same scale.
2. Select activities that could be done at once (i.e., not dependent on others):
3. Place these activities in a line, and then those that are dependent on these first activities in the second line; continue until all are accounted for.
4. Indicate the dependencies with arrows that connect one activity to the next logically dependent one.
5. Rearrange to avoid overlapping arrows where possible.
Finally, you should add a means of assessing performance of the systems and include the aspects of the environment identified in CATWOE.
I do hope these series of articles have helped you gain a better understanding of Soft Systems Methodology and how a Soft Systems Practice can assist your work as a process consultant or group facilitator. Hopefully, you would have gained here sufficient motivation to start your journey to improving your Systems practice. Remember, practice makes perfection.
Referenced work from Bob Williams:
Checkland, Peter B. & Poulter, J. (2006) Learning for Action: A short definitive account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, teachers and Students, Wiley, Chichester. ISBN 0-470-02554-9
Checkland, Peter B. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 1981, 1998. ISBN 0-471-98606-2
Wilson, Brian Systems: Concepts, Methodologies, and Applications, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 1984, 1990. ISBN 0-471-92716-3
Checkland, Peter B. and Scholes, J. Soft Systems Methodology in Action, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 1990. ISBN 0-471-92768-6 – Preface
Checkland, Peter B. (2000). Soft Systems Methodology: A thirty year retrospective. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, 11–58.