Solving Complex Business Problems: An Introduction to Soft Systems Methodology - Part 2

As discussed in the previous article, Solving Complex Business Problems: An Introduction to Soft Systems Methodology, the steps of SSM can be applied in any particular order and the analyst may choose to skip or apply steps depending on what is needed to understand the problem situation. The steps of SSM that will be applied in this article include:

  1. Problem Situation Unstructured
  2. Problem Situation Expressed
  3. Root Definition/CATWOE
  4. Conceptual Modelling
  5. Comparison of the conceptual model with the real world
Let’s imagine a problem situation that involves the introduction of a new regulation into the manufacturing industry. All manufacturing companies are required by law to understand and adhere to the changes introduced as a result of the regulation. The Business Analyst can be brought in to analyze the implications of the regulation, what problems will arise as a result and provide recommendations to ensure that all stakeholders comply and that any risks to the business are mitigated.

Applying SSM Methodology

Stage 1: Problem Situation Unstructured

This is the situation that requires exploration. The situation that requires intervention is the introduction of a regulation into the manufacturing industry. The analyst can try to make sense of the situation by arranging interviews with stakeholders, conducting document analysis and analyzing data in a bid to make sense of the unstructured situation.

Stage 2: Problem Situation Expressed

At this point, enough information had been gathered from interviews to express the problem using different world views.

Stage 3: Root Definition

The root definition encompasses the primary task of the system, though many root definitions can be developed with the aim of solving the problem/increasing understanding of the domain. In order to arrive at the root definition of the desirable system, the mnemonic known as CATWOE was employed as shown below. CATWOE acronym is used in SSM for formulating root definitions and can be used to check that the root definition is well defined:



Multiple root definitions can be done depending on the weltanshauung that is the focus of the analysis.

A root definition of the system intended to solve the problem can be captured using the phrase below:

A system to do X by means of Y to achieve Z:

A manufacturing system comprising product evaluators, research and quality assurance experts with well-defined systems and processes that ensure new products can be introduced to the market at the highest possible standards, subject to regulations.
A manufacturing system to design and develop products by ensuring that health and safety processes are followed in accordance with regulation in order to meet minimum safety requirements, maintain high-quality standards and reduce the likelihood of releasing bad products.

Stage 4: Conceptual Modelling

Modelling requires that the analyst step away from the area of concern and focus on the root definition in order to come up with the necessary activities that will achieve the purpose of the defined human activity system. These relevant activities are referred to as the conceptual model and they take place within the bounds of the human activity system.

Conceptual models need to be constructed for each root definition of the system and basically define what the system must do for the root definition to happen. It defines how the purpose of the system can be achieved.

A conceptual model can be broadly described as a way of analyzing the activities that need to take place in order to define what the actors need to do to achieve the desired transformation. The activities included should only be those performed by the actors named in the root definition, that is, the activities needed to achieve the objectives of the system. It’s also important to include activities for monitoring the system and providing feedback so that these activities can be done according to specification. It’s all about asking: What defines success for the system, how can success be measured and what do the actors need to do in order to measure success?

The conceptual model for the change can be developed by interviewing stakeholders to determine what needs to be done to achieve the transformation stated in the root definition.

The summarized list of activities below represents what is necessary for the desired transformation, following on from our previous example:

  • Understand and define the responsibilities of the project stakeholders under the regulation
  • Ensure that stakeholders understand what is required of them and each member of the team
  • Determine which skill sets are lacking in order to fill the gap
  • Assess which project team members have the skills necessary to fill each role
  • Assess if health and safety procedures are being followed
  • Define the limitations and a strategy for removing the obstacles
  • Monitor to ensure the standards are being followed
  • Monitor the performance of the project team members.

Stage 5: Comparing with the real world

Conceptual models, then need to be compared with the real world to incite thinking about the possible changes and improvements that need to be made. Since the model does not represent the real world, it needs to be compared with what’s obtainable so that a recommendation for positive action can be defined.

SSM is a powerful problem definition technique when applied to problem situations, especially where there are multiple viewpoints on how the problem should be solved. It can help to structure thinking around a problem by ensuring that multiple perspectives are considered.

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