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.



Week 19: Sam opens the door and shows us the way

Dear Systems Thinkers,

Guess what happened this week. That’s right, we didn’t do the Systemic Textual Analysis exercise.  I know, I know, it looks like we’re avoiding it intentionally.  We will do it, I promise.  Although actually, it won’t be next week as group member Sam is going to be talking to us about some work he’s been looking at involving a taking a systemic approach to challenges in public health.

So, what did we do this week.  Well, we have a pretty good excuse for not doing the Systemic Textual Analysis as it happens.  We had a very special guest who came to talk to us about the amazing work she’s been involved with.  Her name is Sam and she works for the MoD.  Over the past five years, she’s been deeply involved in rolling out a major programme within that organisation to develop its Systems Engineering/Thinking abilities.  Largely from an organisational and capability point of view.

Genuine trailblazers

I won’t go into details of the specifics of what they’ve been doing, but to say it’s impressive is an understatement.  I genuinely felt inspired.  For the team to have gained sponsorship at a high level for such a major programme is seriously impressive. They’ve been exploring how systemic approaches to understanding the problems and challenges they face as an organisation can be harnessed and embedded into all that they do.

The parallels between our organisations are substantial.  Both are large, hierarchical, command and control structured, public service organisations. Many of the challenges and issues Sam described facing on the journey of trying to develop and embed these capabilities totally resonated with me and the rest of the group.  It’s so impressive that they’ve persevered and continued to develop the credibility of these approaches.

Mix your methods

Sam describes herself as a “mixed-methods practitioner”.  She isn’t attached to any one tool, method or methodology, but picks up and uses whatever seems most appropriate for the given situation.  The two methodologies she finds the most useful in understanding and addressing complex organisational problems are Soft Systems Methodology and the VIable Systems Model.  I was pleased to hear this, as these are the two approaches I’ve identified as likely be most useful to us, so it was reassuring to hear her say that.

I’ve asked the group to give some feedback on the session, so you get more than just my perspective.  Here’s what I’ve had so far. I’ll add in more below when I receive it.

Matt’s Thoughts:

Some thoughts from me on a very enjoyable session:

  • It was helpful to look outside of our usual setting and see that some of the challenges are common to a similar public industry.
  • Sam gave a very reassuring pragmatic view on systems thinking around trying techniques and working out what works best for each situation and to pick the solution that fits. Think tool box rather than one dimension.
  • She also gave helpful advice about testing it on the right issues to help you and others gain understanding and confidence – don’t go straight at the most complex problem!
  • Some really good thoughts around having a taxonomy of terms and approaches to show what we mean in the phrases we use.
  • I really liked the description about seeking the ambiguity and not being afraid of it. Widening the problem also helps to widen the solutions!
Peter’s Thoughts:

“Approach (paraphrasing): 90% mindset change management, 10% tools/techniques.

Senior commitment: 5 years ring-fenced funding. How did they get this? What was it that made the decision maker commit?

(5 year comes across as a serious long-term commitment, but in MOD terms, this may not be considered long term – perhaps it is just my NHS-glasses)

Common sense realised: Focussing resource upstream to make better decisions, rather than applying systems thinking post decision – e.g Do we need a tank, rather than, how do we make a better tank.”

Ciao for now,

It was a brilliant session and I hope we’ll be staying in touch with Sam. She and her team have really blazed a trail and I just hope we can follow in their footsteps.  Further discussion is required!

OK, enjoy your weekend,


Week 8 – VUCA Heavy, Not VUCA Lite

Written 27/06/2016

You can’t tame Wickedness by presenting a binary choice

Thanks to Jean Boulton for the title of this message.  She has very kindly agreed to come and talk to us on the 28th July, so please do put that in your diaries.

In my last message, when I joked about being in or out of the E.U., I promised that this wasn’t a political group or communication, and it isn’t.  However, I can’t not comment on the referendum  on Thursday and the events that have unfolded since though.  From a systems perspective that is.

I’ve been particularly struck by the “wickedness” of the problems we had to grapple with in making our “in” or “out” decisions.  The problems we have been trying to solve with the simple binary choice we were given of “in” or “out” are highly wicked in nature and encompass a huge amount of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).  If we remind ourselves of the defining characteristics of a “wicked problem”, I think that we can recognise all of them in the choice we were asked to make last Thursday.

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

I suppose this is why referenda are not a common feature in our decision making.  This one certainly seems to have been far too simplistic a choice to address the deeply complex social  and economic challenges we face and this binary, linear choice around a supposedly singular issue was created to address.

And now that a “right” or “wrong” decision has been made, what are we finding?  This simplistic approach to decision making has led to a situation where we have far more Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity through unintended consequences than we did before we made it.  That’s the nature of “wicked problems”.  Let’s now hope that a more systemic approach to dealing with the plethora of amplified and interlaced wicked problems we now face can be taken.

SCiO do VSM very well

So, back to normal service.  On Saturday, I went to London for a SCiO organised Viable System Model (VSM) training workshop.  It was excellent and I’m very glad I went.  I had found VSM slightly impenetrable and esoterically theoretical when I looked at it previously.  I was wrong to find it that way though.  It’s actually deeply practical and was explained in a way that made it immediately accessible and useable.  I’ll be very happy to talk to anyone about it and share my experiences if you would like.  I like my coffee black and without sugar.

Drawing a boundary is not easy

Thursday’s STA session was a productive one.  We reviewed our context diagram and discussed where we should redraw the boundary for our System of Interest.  This prompted interesting discussions and it became clear that choosing what should be in and what should be out makes a significant difference to the “purpose” of the system and how we view it.

Rabbit Hill - System of Interest

So, even though this is just an exercise and we are not trying to solve any real problem, it became apparent that when we do begin to use these approaches for designing and modifying services, we will need to pay careful attention to where we decide to draw our system boundary.  Serious thought about the implications of what we put inside and what we leave outside will be needed.  I think this is a helpful approach.

Thinking about how to think

Indeed, the interesting and powerful thing about this is that we are now thinking about how to think about problems.  We have inserted an extra step into our thought process and rather than just diving into trying to solve a problem, we are carefully thinking about what the problem is and how we should view it. That can’t be a bad thing.

As last week’s note suggested, now we have defined what our system is, we will now return to defining its purpose.  We are going to use a more thorough approach to doing so than simply using the 18 word statement as we have so far.

Affinity Diagram

We are going to use an Affinity Diagram to define the functional requirements (or sub-purposes) of the system and then use a Tree Diagram to structure them.  I’ve attached Stuart Burge’s papers on those diagrams for you.

Happily, our fellow Systems Thinker, Julian, has facilitated the building of Affinity Diagrams previously and has kindly offered to facilitate Thursday’s session.  He’s very enthusiastic about the usefulness of this diagram and it promises to be good session. We are going to follow the “in silence” version of the approach, so if you are going to be there, do please read the briefing paper in advance and also try to arrive on time as I think we will try to cover a lot of ground in the hour.

I hope to see you there.


Week 7 – Who’s In and Who’s Out…….

….Of the System of Interest (not the E.U. (this is a non-political group)).

Written on 17/06/2016

Our first model – A Context Diagram

So, this week we built our first model.  A Context Diagram.  Much of the Systems Thinking approach is about building models of various types, so this will be the first of many we build, and this particular one made for a very good starting point I think.

We created the diagram on a large piece of paper which we put in the middle of the table we were sitting around.  The conversation we had felt like a kind of structured brainstorming session and it was interesting to see the way it highlighted things that we didn’t know about our wider system and how it works.  For example, it became clear that I didn’t really know how our allotment association works and exactly who owns the land, what arrangements are, and even the legal form of the allotment association, of which I’m a shareholder and whether liabilities are limited or not.  I need to go away and find out more.

What’s our System of Interest

It also pushed us to make decisions about what our System of Interest is.  What was inside and what was outside.  This is where the “Thinking” in Systems Thinking comes in.  We are having to think not only about problems and solutions, but about how we are going to frame and view the problem/situation/thing.  I think this is an important point.  It’s the conscious and documented decisions we are making about what we are interested in and understanding how they affect the System of Interest if we leave them in or out, that is beginning to set this approach apart.

Things or Functions?

One possible trap we fell into was naming some stakeholders/things in their object, rather than functional form.  For example, we created a terminator for the Allotment Association and Committee and also for the Council.  If we we’re designing a new allotment, rather than exploring the situation as it is, it would be better to have a terminators for functions, rather than organisations, so instead have “management” and “ownership” for example, as they are functions that will need to be fulfilled, because at this stage we wouldn’t need to commit to “how” those functions are to be delivered.  But, we’re exploring the existing system as it is, so it’s OK to have done it the way we have I think, but this is something to remember for the future.

Cmap – Free and fun

Last night, I turned our drawn diagram into a computer based diagram using a program (or “App” for the younger and more trendy members of our group) called Cmap.  It’s an excellent tool and I’d urge you to have a look.  There are several similar free tools, including InsightMaker and Kumu, but I particularly like this one because it works as both an we based application and a downloadable computer based program and diagrams can be saved online in “the cloud” or on your machine.  It makes it a very versatile and practical tool.  It’s easy to pick up and use, and also to print diagrams from.  The printing of diagrams is a bit of a problem in Kumu and Insightmaker and some other tools.  They’ve been designed with collaborative working on/from a screen or projected image in mind, rather than with ability to print off diagrams.  Anyway, Cmap ticks all the right boxes for me, and is free, so have a look and play with it.  Here’s a link to the website:


And here’s  the model we built.

If you want to view a larger version, go here.

Context Diagram - Rabbit Hill

Here is another copy of the diagram.  I’ve redrawn a possible new  system boundary around what we thought was probably our System of Interest. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Revised Rabbit Hill Allotments System Boundary
Revised Rabbit Hill Allotments System Boundary

We started the exercise with the premise that the System of Interest is just the physical allotments and that everything else was outside of it and in the “context”.  It became clear as we built our Context Diagram that this boundary was probably inappropriate and we would need to include some of the key actors, including the allotment holders, association and committee and also the local Council within our System of Interest.

I think an argument could also be made that we should include services and transport infrastructure.

We’ll debate the boundary

I suggest we begin next week’s session by looking at this boundary and deciding what we want to put inside and what we want to leave out.  We’ll need to justify why we are happy to leave out the things that we do.  For example, suppliers of seeds and plants are so ubiquitous locally as physical shops and as online retailers and we don’t have any control or influence over them, it’s probably reasonable to leave them outside.  We need to consider, justify and document our decisions though. Again, we’re “Thinking”.

We can then draft a new Context Diagram with our newly defined System of Interest in the centre, and then any new stakeholders, functions, and things that become apparent.  There may not be any, or many, and this shouldn’t take long, but I think it’s worth doing to double check we’re happy with our new boundary, wherever that is.

Changing the boundary changes the purpose

Then, we can return to our other favourite subject, “Purpose”.  We will need to define the purpose of this new System of Interest.  The interesting thing here is that our decision/s about where to draw our system boundary will have an effect on the Purpose of the system.  We should take some time in the session to reflect on this.  And also, to think about why it’s important to define Purpose.  For one thing, we can never know if a systems is performing well or not, if we don’t know what it’s purpose is.

To help us define the Purpose, we can use our old friend, the “18 Word Statement”, but I’d like us to also start to get into defining the sub-purposes / functions.  Looking through Stuart Burge’s material, it looks as though the “Tree Diagram” is a nice way to do this.  He does recommend we put together an “Affinity Diagram” before doing so though, so this week’s homework is to read his papers on both.

The Affinity Diagram paper is here.

and the Tree Diagram paper is here.

I look forward to seeing you next week and picking this up again.


Swimming in the Sea of Complexity – Week 5

Fellow Systems Thinkers,

Before I recap on this week, I just want to remind you about the INCOSE talk coming up on the evening of 13th June at the Atkins offices in Aztec West.  The flyer is attached.  Do come along, it’s free, and should be a good evening.

Embracing Complexity with Jean Boulton

Secondly, Jean Boulton is very kindly coming to talk to us at next week’s STA session, so do try to get there, and also, do try  to get there promptly so we can really get the most out of the hour.  She will be talking to us about “complexity”, so for this week’s homework, I suggest we refresh ourselves with the Wicked Problems paper and also Jean’s paper on Complexity and Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).

So back to this week. It was a short week, but we still managed to pack in an excellent STA session.

There were six or seven of us, which was a nice number, and the conversation flowed.  I felt we’re really beginning to get some of the concepts we’re learning about and are managing to begin to change the way we’re viewing problems and even the world.  Well, if nothing else, we’re certainly beginning to change the way we view hand dryers.

Purpose, Emergence and Outcomes

We spent the hour exploring the concepts of “Purpose”, “Emergence”, and “Outcomes”.  In particular, I was interested to explore whether they are one and the same thing.  We continued to use the example of a hand dryer to explore them with.  It was an entertaining and insightful conversation.  I don’t think we came to an agreement on whether they are one and the same thing, or quite what the nature of the relationship between them is, but we certainly deepened our appreciation of them, and of systems more broadly.

Moving the Boundary

We played around with moving the system boundary and seeing how it changed our perception of what the system is and what we needed to consider.  For example, if the hand drying device is a paper towel dispense, then the system will need to also include a bin to put the used towels in and a person to refill the dispenser and empty the bins.

Conversations have continued around the office yesterday and today, and we’ve been talking about the need to “solve, rather than serve” problems.

Should we Serve, or Solve Problems?

So, the notion of needing a hand drying device is based on our view that we need to “serve” the problem of having wet hands.  If we take the view that we need to “solve” that problem, then we start to think of ways to clean hands without getting them wet.  If we can crack that, with some kind of ultraviolet bacteria zapping device, then we also no longer need all of the space consuming basins and expensive plumbing etc.  And that means we don’t need to dedicate nearly so much space to the toilet facilities in the building and can use it for productive office space.

We Need to Challenge Ourselves and Our Assumptions

Now, this is perhaps a silly example, and you’re no doubt saying, “but that technology doesn’t exist”, and “we’d still need some wet wash facilities for when people need to wash things from their hands rather than just sanitise them”, but I think it does show that we can get new perspectives of problems and solutions by using these Systems Thinking approaches.  Even if we simply ask ourselves, “what is the system”, and “what is it’s purpose” or “what is the problem we’re trying to solve” and then challenge ourselves on the answers we jump to, we can make big shifts in our thinking, and this should pay dividends when we apply it to our real life healthcare system problems.

Finally, I’ve recently joined the INCOSE Service Systems Working Group and will be attending my first meeting on Monday.  I’ll let you know how it goes and bring the learning back to you.  Here’s a link to more info, there’s a menu halfway down the page on the right with links to sub-pages:


Enjoy the weekend,