Soft Systems Methodology

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Applying Systems Thinking to non-systemic situations. Explanation of Soft Systems Methodology of Checkland. ('81)

Contributed by: Peter Weeks



What is the Soft Systems Methodology? Description

The Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) from Peter Checkland is a qualitative technique that can be used for applying Systems Thinking to non-systemic situations. It is a way of dealing with problem situations in which there is a high social, political and human activity component. This distinguishes SSM from other methodologies which deal with HARD problems that are often more technology-oriented.

SSM applies Systems Thinking to the real world of human organizations. But crucially without assuming that the subject of enquiry is itself a simple system. SSM therefore is a useful way to approach complex situations and corresponding messy questions.

Origin of the Soft Systems Methodology. History

SSM originated from the understanding that "hard" Systems Thinking, such as Operations Research techniques, is inadequate for enquiring into large, complex organizational issues. Soft Systems Methodology was developed by Peter Checkland for the express purpose of dealing with problems of this type. He had been working in the industry for a number of years and had been working with a number of hard system methodologies. He saw how these were inadequate for the purpose of dealing with extremely complex problems which had a large social component. Therefore in the 1960s he goes to the University of Lancaster in an attempt to research this area, and to deal with these soft problems. He conceives his "Soft Systems Methodology" through a number of research projects in industry and its application and refinement over a number of years. The methodology, which is pretty much how we know it today, was published in 1981. By that time Checkland was firmly entrenched in University life and he had left the industry to pursue a career as a professor and researcher in Software Engineering.

Usage of the Soft Systems Methodology. Applications

  • Any complex, organizational situation where there is a high social, political and human activity component.

Steps in the Soft Systems Methodology. Process

The following steps should be taken (often several iterations are needed):

  1. Investigate the unstructured problem.
  2. Express the problem situation through "Rich Pictures". Rich Pictures are a means of capturing as much information as possible relating to the problem situation. A rich picture can show boundaries, structure, information flows, and communication channels. But in particular it shows the human activity system. This is the element that is not included in models such as: data flow diagrams or class models.
  3. Root definitions of relevant systems. From what different perspectives can we look at this problem situation?
    • Root definitions are written as sentences that elaborate a transformation. There are six elements that make a well formulated root definition. They are summed up in the acronym CATWOE:
      • Customer. Everyone who may gain benefits from a system is considered as a customer of the system. If the system involves sacrifices such as layoffs, then those victims must also be counted as customers.
      • Actor. The actors transform inputs into outputs and they perform the activities defined in the system.
      • Transformation process. This is shown as the conversion of inputs to outputs.
      • Weltanschauung. The German expression for world view. This world view makes the transformation process meaningful in context.
      • Owner. Every system has some proprietor, who has the power to start up and shut down the system (power of veto).
      • Environmental constraints. These are external elements that must be considered. These constraints include organizational policies as well as legal and ethical matters.
  4. Conceptual models.
    • Formal system concept.
    • Other system thinking.
  5. Comparison of 4 with 2.
  6. Feasible, desirable changes.
  7. Action to improve the problem situation.

Strengths of the Soft Systems Methodology. Benefits

  • SSM gives structure to complex organizational and political problem situations, and it can allow them to be dealt with in an organized manner.  It forces the user to look for a solution that is more than technical.
  • Rigorous tool to use in "messy" problems.
  • Specific techniques.

Limitations of the Soft Systems Methodology. Pitfalls

  • SSM requires from participants to adapt to the overall approach.
  • Be careful not to narrow the scope of the investigation too early.
  • It is difficult to assemble the richest picture, without imposing a particular structure and solution on problem situation.
  • People have difficulties to interpret the world in the loose way. They often show an over-urgent desire for action.

Assumptions of the Soft Systems Methodology. Conditions

  • Assumes that most management and organizational problems cannot be seen as pure "systems problems" as the system is far too complex to analyze.
  • Nevertheless applying a systemic approach in a non-systemic situation is valuable.

Book: Peter Checkland - Systems Thinking, Systems Practice -

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