Peter Checkland’s Systems Thinking, Systems Practice (1981) is one of those seminal works that helped to move systems thinking out of the classroom and into the boardroom. In a remarkably readable book, Checkland outlines the components of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and takes us through the stages with case studies in organisations. What Checkland demonstrated was that theory is not enough and method is required when intervening in organisations. Many of the ideas and concepts are still in use today and have led to the development of new thinking.
The book is structured in two main parts (1) an introduction to systems thinking, core ideas and evolution and (2) the origins and application of soft systems thinking. Each part is illustrated by case studies and other examples from real world situations. Revisiting my copy, I find that chapter six on systems analysis, outlining the origins and stages of SSM is full of underlining, notes and page markers. As practitioners analysing problem situations this book is an important one in understanding the evolution of effective intervention.
Hard and soft systems thinking
Checkland’s distinction between between hard systems and soft systems is one of those fundamental distinctions that has implications for practice. It is a useful reorientation to move from the view of a system as a process to deliver some defined end (e.g. engineering and lean six sigma) to viewing them as complex human activity systems. Understanding problem situations differently helps us move forwards.
The concept of worldviews (weltanschauung) was first introduced by Churchman in the 1970s. The reframing of problem situations to include human beings with different worldviews feels unremarkable now and is a testimony to Checkland building this into his method. This led to popularity and success. By recognising different perspectives, we introduce a key aspect of complexity into situations with the eventual aim of investigation, consensus and improvement.
In recognition that these problem situations are made up of different constituents acting and reacting together, Checkland introduces the mnemonic CATWOE. This is a tool for exploring the many aspects of situations to include Customers – Actors – Transformation– World view – Owners – Environmental constraints. This is a more holistic way to explore situations than viewing them as purely physical activity, broken into parts to achieve an end goal. The reality is that all ‘processes’ and problem situations are more complex than efficiency approaches allow for.
The birth of a methodology – SSM
The purpose of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is not to end debate but to achieve consensus as a way to move forwards. The introduction of stages in the model such as rich pictures is one of a number of tools, that journey towards this end. It cannot be overstated how important a development this was in the analysis of problem situations. There are a number of criticisms that can be levelled at SSM. Consensus for example is often hard to achieve and problems quick to re-emerge. Approaches such as the Vanguard Method take a different route to achieve consensus, holistically acknowledging hard and soft systems simultaneously.
Key themes covered
- The evolution of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)
- Hard and Soft systems thinking
- Problem situations
- Rich pictures
- Conceptual models
- A step-by-step journey through SSM
- Examples of SSM in action
Where it is in use?
Checklands concepts have seeped into the improvement world’s consciousness, and so it can be said that they are in use everywhere.*
*If you know of specific organisations where SSM is used routinely please feel free to email me or add a comment.
Where to buy it?
Copies of the original edition can be purchased from ebay and the 30 year anniversary edition is available from many independent book sellers and from amazon
peter bond says
Hi Howard, Just came across your site. Just a small comment. If you used SSM, particularly CATWOE, then you would have come to a different and proper purpose for the effectiveness exchange. You state the purpose of The Effectiveness Exchange ia ‘Promoting and sharing views, news, practice and thinking about organisational effectiveness’ . This may be what you ‘do but it is not its purpose, which might be, for example, to encourage readers to adopt thinking systems and thinking practice, or to change the practices of consultants and/or managers.