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 24: The Restaurant Experience Rich Pictures

Hello Team STA,

This was a good week.  The subject of Rich Pictures seems to have clicked much more securely than it had last week.

Thanks to our friends Stuart and Julian

I want to thank Stuart Burge for his guidance last week and suggestion of using a previous restaurant experience as the basis for a Rich Picture.  I also want to thank regular blog reader and commenter Julian Johnson for getting in touch last weekend with an example of his own experience of taking his family out for a meal the night before.  Very helpful Julian!  And to anyone out there who reads the blog and has thoughts on what we’re doing, please don’t be shy.  Just comment in the fields at the bottom of posts.

The central thing I took away from these pointers is that one need not get too caught up in the correctness of what a Rich Picture is.  The important thing is to tell a story of what happened, or what is going on.  A regular process flow, but with richer information about how well the process is working and how it feels to be in it, is OK.

It’s easier when  it’s familiar and personal

Apart from the obvious fact that we’re now a little bit more experienced and practised than we were last week, I think another reason things were better this week is because of the example we used.  The restaurant example certainly felt more real, personal and easier to engage with than the Five Year Forward View example we’d been grappling with the previous week.  That’s something to bear in mind, and as we’ll see, has informed the case study we’re going to use.

Jan is this week’s star

We don’t have prizes for Systems Thinker of the week, but if we did, it would surely go to Jan.  She only joined the group a month or so ago, but has taken to the work with flying colours.

Jan, Lee and I had decided to get together for lunch the day before our STA session to work on a joint Rich Picture.  When we met, it turned out Jan had cracked on and already produced one for her own memorable restaurant experience.  A meal in a high end hotel restaurant in Amsterdam to celebrate an important wedding anniversary.  Here is her picture:

Jan's memorable anniversary meal
Jan’s memorable anniversary meal

So good was this, that we decided not to create another, but had a very good discussion about her experience, how she had expressed it and we carried on to get into how one could use this to start understanding how the restaurant operated from a systemic point of view, and also what the requirements would be to create another restaurant able to replicate this type of experience.  In her brilliance, Jan had already put some thought into decomposing this into various functions and activities. Here’s her sketched notes:

How the restaurant works
How the restaurant works
Deciding where to take the family

We continued this discussion in the group session yesterday.  We also had a look at a Rich Picture Matt had kindly draft and let us have, even though he couldn’t be at the session.  His depicts the decision making process that was involved in his family deciding where to eat at the end of a happy day out at the seaside.  Here is is:

Where to take the family to eat
Where to take the family to eat
It’s hard to integrate multiple viewpoints

I won’t recount all of the discussions we had, but in short we explored where we think we can still improve in creating these pictures.  Taking into account multiple viewpoints was expressed as one thing that’s difficult to do and we will need to hone our abilities in doing that.  We spoke about the next stage in the process of deciding where to draw our system boundary and then begin to create “Root Definitions” for the overall system of interest and then the sub-systems within it.  We’ll move into all of that in much greater detail in the coming weeks.

We’re going downstairs to the canteen

Finally, we spent some time discussing what we should do for homework and an idea for a case study to work on with SSM in the weeks to come.  Sticking with the the theme of restaurants, we’ve decided to use the staff canteen in our building as the example.  It’s something we’re all reasonably familiar with and have personal experiences and views of. It is also relatively contained and straightforward to look at.  This might mean it’s not ideal for SSM, which is designed to deal with social complexity in a situation, but there is enough complexity for it to be a good example for we beginners to start with.

The original purpose of the facility is/was actually to prepare meals to be delivered out to the community as part of the “meals on wheels” service.  The provision of meals for staff is actually as secondary activity.  Further to that, across the road from the office is a petrol station that previously sold relatively low quality sandwiches etc. and also had a fast food outlet in it.  This is currently being refurbished and instead, a premium food retailer will operate from there and one assumes there will be a higher standard of lunchtime options available. What will be the effect of this changing competition on the staff canteen?  The problem does at least look mildly wicked.

So, get you paper and pencils out

So, the task for this week’s homework is to create Rich Pictures that express this situation.  It will be interesting to see how we get on.  We’re not necessarily trying to answer a specific question or to make any particular improvement or change, so this might make the exercise a little unfocused, but it will be interesting to find out if that is the case.  It’s a good starting point.  Let’s see where it takes us.

Enjoy your weekend,