Our first go at CATWOE and an SSM Root Definition

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Let’s go CATWOE

So, we now have a top level Root Definition for our canteen “system”.  It’s taken us several weeks to reach this point, each week working through different segments of the CATWOE mnemonic.  If you remember, this is the 3rd stage in Soft Systems Methodology.  It is essentially like a statement of purpose for the system that takes into account who the stakeholders are, the perspective/s the purpose is viewed from, and environmental constraints.

Unlike the alphabet, we began with a W…

We started the process off by identifying all of the important stakeholders.  We then considered the various Worldviews (W) they might have. There we quite a few, ranging from the purpose of the canteen being to provide sustenance, family friendly employment, to a source of profit for the Local Authority (although we don’t actually know whether it makes a profit or not).

…and then T, E, C, A and O…..

We continued by identifying a variety of Transformations (T) that are at play. These are essential the functions that it performs.  We identified top and lower level Ts, although it’s only the top level ones we’ve included in the Root Definition below. We’ll look at others when we create root definitions for sub-systems.  We considered what Environmental (E) constraints were at play.  These included things like having to comply to food hygiene legislation and being bounded by the physical space available in the building.  Finally, we worked out whether the various stakeholders were Customers (C), Actors (A), or Owners (O) within the system.

…before we could draft our Root Definition

I really need to write much more about this, and also take you through the elements of CATWOE and what stakeholders and factors we identified against each.  I’m just too short on time this month.  It’s important, so I promise I will catch up properly and do it.  For now, here is the Root Definition we’ve come up with:

“A system owned by the Local Authority and operated by their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food at lunchtimes that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food, which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building.”

The W changes everything

There, that is quite a mouthful  It covers a lot of ground though.  We felt we are going to need to revisit it next week to see if we’ve omitted anything.  Also, this root definition is created from a particular Worldview (W), that being that the general purpose of the canteen is to provide sustenance and a place for workers to relax.  If we took another W, such as it existing to fulfil a duty of care the Local Authority has, or as a vehicle to make profit, the Root Definition might end up being quite different.  We’ll play around with that and experiment next week.

As does the boundary

You might also notice that we’ve omitted the “Meals on Wheels” service that operates from the facility, and also not mentioned the new competition the canteen is now facing from the higher end food outlet that has opened across the road.  We decided to make our lives easier at this first pass and draw our “boundary” in fairly tight.  Indeed, we had a discussion about where we were drawing our boundary, and also opted to leave food suppliers outside of it.  We discussed the potential risks and impacts of doing so, but as the items the canteen buys in a commodities and readily available, we decided it safe to do so.

We’re not done with Root Definitions, but I’m done with this week.  I wish you an excellent weekend.



What’s the difference between hard and soft systems approaches

Hello Systems Thinkers,

I’m sorry the blog has been quiet for the past few weeks.  Life has been rather bursting at the seams.  So don’t worry, there is lots to write about and tell you, it’s just that finding the time to do so has been a little difficult this past few week.

We’ve been continuing our journey into SSM.  We sent the first two session of this month using CATWOE to build up our root definition/s for the system of interest (our canteen). Then yesterday we took a step back and looked at the overall SSM process and the difference between “soft” and “hard” systems thinking.  We reffered to slide 5 of the excellent slides at the following link.  Have a look.


So far we have focussed on the W (Worldview) and T (Transformation) of CATWOE, so still have the others to cover. The W and T and important and interesting and there’s quite a bit t say about them, but I think I’ll leave it for a fuller post.

For now, I’ll leave you with those slides to look through, and wish you an excellent weekend.


InDevelopment: Learning through collaborative Systems Thinking

A quick note to let you know about a brand new type of INCOSE Systems Thinking event I’m jointly organising on the evening of Monday 30th Jan.  Have a look at the flyer and/or read the description below to find out more.  I’m really looking forward to this one.  We’ve put in a lot of effort behind the scenes to pull the concept and event together and this it be fun and useful.  You can book here:


What is “InDevelopment”? 

InDevelopment is a new type of working group event BLG is piloting.  We will collectively look at 3 separate real life project and organisational scenarios from systems perspectives, drawing on each other’s expertise in a friendly and constructive atmosphere.  We will discuss each scenario in small groups and brief our findings across the groups.  All who attend will agree to maintain discretion over anything discussed.

What will you get out of attending? 

We will use a collaborative problem-solving approach that leads to a shared learning experience for all, not just those whose topics are being worked on.  It will provide an opportunity to work and learn with fellow systems folk.  We hope that all will deepen their understanding of Systems Thinking, and their own problem solving and decision making behaviours.

What’s the approach? 

We will examine each of the 3 scenarios through the lens of Systems Thinking, and in particular from the perspective of the personal qualities and attributes a Systems Thinker might have.  We have been inspired by two (relatively) recent BLG talks; one by Kevan Boll on the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s work and the second by Gary Smith, on an approach to Systems Thinking he has developed with Brigitte Daniel Allegro, that they call the Systems Thinking Tree.

Preparing for the session: 

Recommended preparation for attendees will be to read and watch the following:

Systems Thinking Fast & Slow: Presentation by Kevan Boll:  www.bit.ly/BLG-FastSlow

Systems Tree in action:  Presentation by Gary Smith:  www.bit.ly/BLG-Sepsis

Examples of Kahneman and Tverksy’s heuristics and biases: www.bit.ly/KahnemanAnimation


Merry Christmas Systems Thinkers

Merry Christmas Systems Thinkers,

In the spirit of Christmas festivities, we skipped our regular learning session yesterday and instead, went to the pub for lunch.  It was a really nice way to relax a bit, but to also reflect on where we’ve been, and where we’re going as a group.

If you can believe it, we’ve now been going for 8 months.  I really had no idea how long we’d keep this up when we started, and am so pleased we’ve come as far as we have and that the desire is clearly there to keep learning and practising.

I’ll stop here, and then write up the reflections we all shared in a post next week, as I’m a little short of time this evening.

In the meantime, we at Systems Thinkers Anonymous wish you all a very merry Christmas.


Reflections on Systemigrams

Hello Systems Thinkers,

As promised last week, here is a post containing an blog comment and then email dialogue I had with STA friend and regular commenter Julian Johnson.  If you want to look him up, here is a link to Juian’s LinkedIn profile and here is a link to the website for his consultancy business, holistem.

The conversation is about what a “Systemigram” ought to be, and how that differs from an “Information Model”.  Julian has very kindly put together some slides showing how the canteen Systemigram we produced is actually an Information model, and another set of slides showing what a Systemigram might actually look like.  So, here are Julian’s slides showing how:

  1. The canteen set-up might be expressed as an Information Model – here
  2. The canteen situation might be expressed as a Systemigram – here

And here is the dialogue we’ve had.  It’s well worth reading. Thanks Julian.

Comment Julian left on STA blog week 27 on 3rd December 2016.  Here.

Tim, another great post from you, very interesting and thought provoking. A couple of (again I hope constructive) observations:

  1. On the nature of your systemigram: When I look at what you have above, this seems to be a less a systemigram (Boardman et al), and more a conventional information model (IM). So what is a conventional IM? Basically it identifies concepts in the domain of interest, and declarative relationships between them. It isn’t really about influence relationships, which is arguably the essence of a systemigram. In fact, if I take your diagram, and replace ellipses by rectangles, and arrows by (depending on notation) lines with a directed annotation label (UML class diag) or labelled ‘lollypop’ line (STEP modelling language), AND ellipse-in-ellipse by the appropriate supertype-subtype notation (open triangle notation in UML class diag), I’m about there. Its not that the diagram is wrong in any way, (in fact it appears very useful), it just (to me) seems to have moved from a systemigram underlying paradigm, to something else (IM paradigm).
  1. Pick your time comment: Cannot agree more. It often seems to higher up the organisation you go, the less attention span we find (rightly or wrongly), and the more things have to be reduced to primary colours. We’re talking seriously low end of ‘magic number 7 +/- 2’, if you know what I mean. However, in my experience, when getting something that can appear complicated / complex in a single diagram over, it is better not to through the whole diagram at the audience at step 1, and then explain all the elements, but more to build up the diagram on the blank paper / screen, so you end up with the whole picture, but you have brought an audience along, step by step. In fact, this is partly why some tools, like Insight Maker, have a storyboard capability…

Hope that helps…

Tim’s email response on 5th December 2016

Thanks Julian.

I do appreciate these comments!

I must admit that my head is now in my hands though (metaphorically).  I couldn’t quite get Rich Pictures, so I had a go a Systemigrams, and it turns out I’ve not “got” them either.

I wonder, reading your explanation, are Rich Pictures and a Systemigrams much the same thing, or rather serve a similar purpose form a similar perspective, but obviously produced with different media in a different environment?


Julian’s email response on 5th December 2016


“my head is now in my hands though”. Oh dear.

“I wonder, reading your explanation are Rich Pictures and Systemigrams much the same thing, or rather serve a similar purpose from a similar perspective, but are obviously produced with different media in a different environment?”

If I can interpret your question, there appear to be two parts to it:

  1.   That Rich Pictures and systemigrams are much the same thing, serving similar purposes and/or from a similar perspective;
  2.   They are produced with different media (notations) in different environments (tools).

First to respond to 2:

They could indeed be produced with the same tool, for instance, pen and paper / flipchart etc. (But so could any diagram regardless how ‘well formed’.) In terms of computer based tools, it would then start to depend how flexible the tool is. Basically both Rich Pictures and systemigrams could be said to be essentially node-and-link diagrams (essentially a visualisation of a ‘graph’, in maths of computer science speak). However, systemigrams appear to be stricter to the node-and-link paradigm, than Rich pictures, because they are essentially about one item (node, semantically a concept) being linked to one or more other items (nodes) via links (representing relationships). Systemigrams have another type of relationship, type-of, represented by the ellipsi inside another ellipse layout. Anyway, any computer based tool worth its weight that allows you to put diagrams together will have some awareness of the underlying ‘paradigm’. For instance, on a data flow tool, it would not allow you to connect a flow line directly to another flow line, only a flow line to a process bubble, or a process bubble to a flow line etc. We can see this when we use Systemitool, which only allows certain diagram constructs to be connected to certain others. I guess the nearest we can get to a rich picture tool is only something like powerpoint that generically has a large pallet of icons, symbols and various connector types, but is pretty free about where you put things.

As to 1:

Rich pictures and Systemigrams are similar to each other in that they are both pictorial views that a) help a group of people represent and communicate an understanding of a domain and b) are both used for early phases tackling complex / complicated or chaotic systems, often social technical, where ‘conventional’ systems development approaches tend to struggle. However, they differ (as representations) in that a) systemigrams are rather more constrained than rich pictures in the strict node-link metaphor above and b) rich pictures allow carte blanche in types of symbols, AND how they are placed. For instance, having a symbol representing a group of people labelled ‘project management’ and a second symbol representing a group of people labelled ‘engineering’ in some proximity on the diagram, and a drawing of a brick wall between them usefully communicates: these groups don’t talk. There is no explicit node-link construct, it is the simple placement that we see as a pattern.

My comment below: “…identifies concepts in the domain of interest, and declarative relationships between them. It isn’t really about influence relationships…” is the essence in a sense of difference between an IM view, and a systemigram view. This email is already too long, but if it helps [for your understanding], I’ll happy try find / create some examples to try to illustrate my expectation of the difference of typical IM and systemigram examples.


Julian’s follow up Email on 12th December 2016

I’ve backed up from the week 27 canteen ‘systemigram’, given my observation that it appears closer to an information model than an systemigram, by building up an information model applicable to a canteen/ meals on wheels domain.

Attached is the result, which is basically a step by step build-up of a fledgling information model. I say fledgling as:

  •     I’ve not been explicit about capturing either requirements of what we are trying to achieve with such a model, nor with the use cases;
  •     I’ve not elaborated the nature of relationship ordinality (one-to-many, many-to-many etc)
  •     I’ve not elaborated many attributes that one would need to make the model ‘useful’.

However, you will see by the time you get the slide 8 which has the ‘full’ model (subject to caveats about AND any entity should have a definition) that the result is very similar (ignoring boxes rather than rectangles for concepts/entities, and straight versus arcs for relationships, and subtype representation is different) that there is much similarity; indeed I then hand marked with red ticks my paper copy of your systemigram, and may be 80% of items in your diagram are ticked (=covered).

In a separate response I’ll look at how my expectation on a systemigram would actually focus on how well (or poorly) a given canteen works (or doesn’t work) and it part why (or works or doesn’t work).

Hope this is of value to you… let me know!

Julian’s final email on 13th December 2016


Not hampered by tackling a real example, I’ve just tried to speculate a potential canteen and some of its issues. Attached is a slideset, where two of the slides are a prose explanation of some aspects that are ‘challenging’, and then the build-up of systemigram fragments. As you will see in the last slide, I came across some interesting issues, which probably means I need to (completely) read Boardman’s book properly, rather than just wing it. Anyway, I learned something by doing this anyway…

Hope it perhaps moves you a step closer to practical systemigrams, or at least, the distinction of systemigram to (say) information model?

Let me know if you go something (anything) out of this material…


Julian Johnson, BSc, PhD, CSEP MINCOSE
Director, Chief Scientist, Holistem Ltd.
+44 1254 209421
+44 797 442 8697


A Little Lull

Hello Fellows,

OK, so we were a little lazy this week.  We arrived at yesterday’s session with several of us feeling under the weather and most with our lunchtime sandwiches in hand.  Rather than dragging everyone down to business, we allowed some lunchtime conversation to flow, and flow and flow. It was a good conversation, largely focussed on systemic views of the health service both locally and nationally.  It was too sprawling and free flowing to make much of a blog post from though, so I won’t even try to do so.

So, we had a little bit of a lull in terms of both our sessions and this blog. Apologies if you came looking forward to your weekly update.

Don’t worry though, it’s only a sort of a lull.  In fact, there is lots of tip-top stuff going on and winging its way to the blog soon.  Our good friend and regular commenter/contributor Julian Johnson and I have exchanged a few emails recently.  He has been illuminating the similarities and differences between Rich Pictures and Systemigrams and how the Systemigram we produced of the canteen is actually more a standard “Information Model” than a true Systemigram.  We’ll work this up into a blog post.  It’ll be a good one.  Julian’s insights and contributions are always super helpful.

Secondly, I had a bit of an insight of my own this week when thinking about how one would put a strategy together for major service transformations.  I think I’ve come up with a practical approach for highly complex, uncertain and ambiguous environments (i.e. NHS at the moment), where top down reorganisations are the default, but often unhelpful, preference.  It combines the good stuff Jean Boulton has to say about a “complexity view” of strategy, Charles Lindblom had to say about “Muddling Through” and the “Last Responsible Moment” approach to making design decisions in large complex technical projects, such as  the Heathrow T5 build where I learned about it.  It may not be an original idea, but then again it just might be. It’ll take me a couple of weeks to develop and write up my thoughts, but I think it’s going to be an interesting and hopefully useful approach and I look forward to sounding you out.

Enjoy the weekend,


Week 27: Systemigram to Root Definitions – The next step

Hello fellow Systems Thinkers,

We had a good meeting yesterday.  It ended up being a session of two halves.  In the first, we discussed the Systemigram  that resulted from the previous week’s meeting.  In the second, we began to venture into creating Root Definitions for the “purpose” of the system.

Systemigram time

To kick off, I asked what the group thought of the Systemigram I’d worked up based on the Rich Picture drafting we’d done in the previous week’s session.  To remind you, here it is:

Manorwood Canteen Systemigram
Manorwood Canteen Systemigram

The feedback was positive. Apart from one initial comment that is. Namely, Jan said;

“oh, it looks quite messy and confusing.”

This is a fair comment.  It does look messy, and this is the kind of reaction I’ve received when I’ve put similar system models in front of other people.  It’s a problem we systems folk have when trying to communicate.  Diagrams and models are a great way to express the richness and complexity of a situation in a coherent and understandable way, but they can still look complex.

Complexity is scary

However, once she’d spent a moment looking around the diagram and getting her bearings Jan took to it without any worry and was very positive about it.   I think a lesson for us is to think before putting these kind of things in front of people. Some love them, but many don’t, and I think we need to pick our moment.  i.e. when they have the time and space to sit back and engage with it, not when they’re in the middle of something else.

It’s funny, many people say they really like visual material and prefer it to wordy documents.  Hence the proliferation of infographics and pie charts in reports.  But when it comes down to it, some of those same people recoil when you put a systemigram, an admittedly complex looking visual aid, in front of them.   

My feeling is that what many people actually like is something simple that hides the complexity of reality.  They prefer to not have to think too hard.  There’s something comforting about a colourful infographic or pie chart. That’s fine, but the world and problems we deal with are complex, and there is no way to avoid that if you want to make a positive difference.  So the question is what can help us to understand and deal with complexity.  I think a Rich Picture or Systemigram is a very good way to do that.  But we need the right audience, at the right time.

Iterate between Rich Picture and Systemigram

Anyway, back to our Systemigram.  We felt it does a good job of expressing what’s going on within our “System of Interest”.  It perhaps doesn’t contain the information about how well things are working, what the motivations of actors are, and where the tensions are that a Rich Picture would, but it gives a good foundation to explore those things with.  I can see how one might initially get the stakeholders around a table to create a Rich Picture, but that it would be messy and ragged, and all of the relationships not fully formed.  It would need to be redrafted and redrafted iteratively.  This Systemigram format could be a good way to do that.

We spent some time discussing things we might add, remove or change about the Systemigram based on the reality of the situation it was trying to express.  I think this is an endorsement of the format.  It prompted discussions about the “problem space” and pushed us to explore further and identify areas and things we weren’t sure of.

Into the Root Definition

In the second half of the session we moved on to begin to explore the CATWOE mnemonic for drafting a system Root Definition.  What’s a Root Definition then?  It’s essentially a description of the “Purpose” of a system.  I’ve already referred you to Stuart Burge’s excellent paper on SSM, which gives a good definition of it, so here’s another source.  It’s a set of slides put together by a couple of chaps I’ve had some communications with. They’re good slides, with some nice examples. I like them. There’s a lot of them though, so take some time and have a browse through.


We’ll be working on Root Definitions using CATWOE for a number of weeks I think, so I won’t’ go into too much detail tonight.  Yesterday, we began by thinking about and identifying the stakeholders our Systemigram had uncovered.  They will fit into the Customer, Actor, or Owner, in different combinations depending on what Transformation we are looking at within the system.  We’ll get into that all in much more detail in the coming weeks.

Where’s the W in Prison?

For now, I’ll just highlight the importance of the Weltanschauung, or Worldview as we’ll probably refer to it (although Sandra may have a view on that).  This is about the point of view from which we view the purpose of the system.  Not just who the stakeholders are, but what their motivations and beliefs are. This extracted slide from the slide set above give a nice example of different Ws for a prison:


There are lots of possible Ws at play in our canteen/meals on wheels system.  They might include the Local Authority’s desire to comply with statutory requirements on it, a belief in the social value of providing decent rest and food facilities for staff, a sense of duty to care for immobile people in the community, etc, etc, etc.  We’ll dive in further next week.

OK, that will do for now.  I wish you an excellent weekend.


Week 26: A Systemigram of the Canteen

Hello Systems Thinkers,

A little bit of front end skiving

I hope you’ve had a good week.  We had an enjoyable, but brief session yesterday.  Only four of us could make it, and the room we use was occupied by others having what looked like a very difficult meeting for the first 30 mins of the session.  We could have turfed them out, but left them to it and had an enjoyable and laid back discussion about the similarities and differences manufacturing and healthcare organisations.  We’ll follow this up in the future.

A Rich Picture…..

When we finally got going with our session, the four of us stood around a flip chart and worked on creating a Rich Picture to express our “system of interest”.  That being the dynamic situation that exists for the combined staff canteen and meals on wheels operation based in our office building now that a “posh” food retail outlet is about to open across the road.  It was an enjoyable exercise and it certainly got us discussing what’s going on and the potential dynamics between the stakeholders and system elements.

…..ended up being a Systemigram

By the end of the session, I realised I had reverted to my usual bubble and arrow type of diagram, and that it probably resembled a Systemigram more than a Rich Picture.  Because of that, I spent some time last night using “Systemitool” to work up and develop a bit further the work we did as a Systemigram.  Here’s the result:

Manorwood Canteen Systemigram
Manorwood Canteen Systemigram

It’s not too dissimilar to a Rich Picture and does pretty much the same job.  Perhaps this format doesn’t go quite as far in exploring and expressing how the relationships and activities feel.  For example, where there are tensions, and what motivates people.  We can take this and work on it further to do that.  It’s also a bit of a no no to use software to draft a Rich Picture, as it kind of limits expression and group participation in a way that paper and pens don’t.

We’ve made an assumption about where our system boundary is with this, and that’s something we’ll need to revisit.  Should we include the canteen’s food suppliers for example?  Should we include other local dining options?

Have we unpacked the complexity sufficiently?  I’m sure there are lots of relationships, incentives, motivations, dynamics, tensions, frustrations, etc. we haven’t uncovered here.  We’ll explore further and make some judgements about what matters to us in exploring this problem.

Perhaps next week we’ll print off a copy and then take a pen to it to express those things.  For now, I think we’ve made a good start on exploring and expressing the “problem space”.

Boardman & Sauser

A little background on Systemigams.  I know about them as our friend Gary Smith (a previous special guest) suggested I look at them.  They have been developed and pioneered by John Boardman and Brian Sauser. They wrote this book, which I bought and read earlier in the year.  It’s pretty good and gives a nice overview as to why Systems Thinking is helpful for approaching, understanding and solving complex organisational problems; and then explains and shows how to create Systemigrams.  Their own creation.  Let me know if you’d like to borrow the book.  For now, here’s a google image search with lots of examples.

So, that will do for today. I wish you a restful weekend,


Nimrod AEW3: A Cautionary Tale

A quick post to let you know about an upcoming talk being put on by the Bristol branch of INCOSE on Monday the 05th of December.

Title:  Nimrod AEW3: A Cautionary Tale
Presenters:  Peter Brook & Mike Parnell
Location: Atkins, The Hub 500 Park Avenue, Aztec West, Bristol BS32 4RZ
Time: 18:30 for 19:00 start to 21:00
Cost: FREE. Non-Members Welcome

You can book here.

And download a flyer/poster here.

And here’s some more information about the talk.  Whilst it is about an aircraft project, I believe it should be of interest to those of us in the health service and other sectors.  There will be lots of commonalities in the lessons learnt. I’m very much looking forward to the talk.

December 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the cancellation of the Nimrod Airborne Early Warning aircraft, arguably the most traumatic event to befall the post-war defence systems community.

The technological difficulties are relatively well known and certainly played a part. Less publicised are the many causes of failure resulting from the nature of the system, how it was specified and developed and how procurement was conducted.

This talk will be given by systems community leading lights Peter Brook & Mike Parnell; two people who had a ringside seat at various times and in different roles in the 10 years leading up to cancellation.

The story will be told from start to finish, and lessons drawn which are still relevant today to anyone involved in commissioning, procurement and systems more generally.

I hope to see you there.


ASEC 2016

Hello Systems Thinkers,

A special guest….

The session yesterday was excellent.  We had a surprise special guest.  Well, a surprise in so much as it was arranged at the last minute.  The guest, was Matt, of the Royal Navy and MoD.  I’ve been talking to Matt about various opportunities and him attending a session for a little while, so when he got in touch yesterday morning to say he was available at the last minute, I of course jumped at the chance.

….and a trip to ASEC

I’ll write up a proper review of the session, including reflections from group members in the next week or so.  In the meantime, I thought I’d say a little bit about my trip to ASEC this week.  What on earth is ASEC I hear you say.  Well, it is the Annual Systems Engineering Conference which is organised by INCOSE UK.  It took place on Tuesday and Wednesday at the University of Warwick, and it was brilliant.

I’ve wanted to go to ASEC for a couple of years now, but haven’t been able to.  This year I got very lucky and was able to attend as a poster I submitted to the Academic Research Showcase was accepted.  I’ve become involved through STA in a pan European research project looking at different methods of innovation and how to both manage and teach them. The project is called the TACIT Knowledge Alliance.  Here is a photo of me standing next to the poster submitted.

TACIT poster
TACIT poster

And here is the poster itself:

TACIT poster
TACIT poster
So much good stuff

The event involved lots of talks and tutorials.  With several going on at any one time, choosing what to go to was not easy.  There were of course lots of opportunities to catch up with people I knew and also meet new people, including several good folk who are subscribed to this blog.  This was brilliant.  Spending 48 hours in the company of around 150 other people who were similarly into all things systems, was fantastic.  Really stimulating.

So, what were the highlights?  For me, I genuinely enjoyed every talk I heard, but I think the two standout sessions were the Service Systems Engineering Working Group session and also the Easy Approach to Requirements Syntax (EARS) tutorial.

The services working group

I was briefly a member of the Services Working Group earlier this year, but have had to step back from full involvement because of a lack of time.  It’s a shame, as it’s a fascinating and pertinent area, but it was great to catch up with where the group is at.  The group are looking at determining to what degree the regular INCOSE Systems Engineering (SE) approach (if there is such a thing) can be applied in the services domain.  We spent this session discussing the key differences between products and services and whether these matter when trying to use SE methods.  We worked on categorising services into various types based on different characteristics.

We only had an hour and a half, but the conversation and perspectives were fascinating.  In my view, services are all about the organisation that’s behind delivering them.  I think functional focussed approaches can be applied to the design of services, but I’m less sure about their applicability for the ongoing evolutionary development of them.  As we’re finding, our service design problems are often complex and wicked in nature.  I think Capability Engineering, and the approaches we’re learning about, which are better suited to dealing with socially complex situations are where we will also need to look. We’ll see.


Easy Approach to Requirements Syntax is a very neat way to write requirements.  It was created by Alistair Mavin. Who also ran the tutorial.  Alistair did a sterling job of teaching us this concise and robust way of writing requirements.  The word “easy”, refers to the difficulty of learning the method and language, rather than the actual job of defining requirements, which is never easy.

If you want to know more about EARS, here is a paper by Alistair I found on ResearchGate.  There are loads there, so have a look.

Easy Approach to Requirements Syntax

For me, a key insight I will take away from this session was something that Alistair said.  It was along the lines of:

“Customers don’t have requirements.  They have goals.  Systems have requirements.”

The example Alistair gave was of a car.for a fast car, a requirement might be that it can travel from 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds.  This would be a requirement of the car, a system.  It’s unlikely it would be a requirement of the customer though.  A customer goal might be to have a fast car that give a real thrill of speed when driven and impresses his/her mates.

The job of the Requirements Engineer is to take those poorly defined goals and turn them into technical requirements.  And if it turns out that producing a car that accelerates to 60mph in 5.8 seconds requires a larger and more expensive engine than a car that get to 60mph in 6.2 seconds, that requirement will need to be looked at and possible traded off to see if the customer goals can be achieved in a different way. Perhaps by adding some flashy chrome to the body work and tightening up the suspension.

What does this mean for us?

What does this mean for us in health services.  I’m not quite sure, so suggest we reflect on it and discuss.  It takes us back to the subject of patient outcomes.  How we determine what they are and then design systems that deliver them.  How do we determine outcomes, and then translate them into specific requirements for our systems?  This is a big question for us.

Back to normal

So, next week it’s back to normal. No ASEC, and no special guests.  We’ll get back down to Rich Pictures.  Please have a go at producing a new Rich Picture for the staff canteen.  Pick a stakeholder, or a perspective and have a go from that point of view.

In the meantime, enjoy the weekend.