Reworking the SSM Root Definition & Final Conceptual Models

Hello Systems Thinkers,

This is a fairly short post, just to wrap up on the SSM work.  We finished with it quite a while back and have been busy exploring a variety of systems ideas and concepts, and in particular, have been dipping our toe into cybernetics and the Viable System Model. It’s good stuff.

For the moment though, I just wanted to write a note to complete the work on our SSM models.  If you recall, the last post I wrote on SSM was a summary of the conceptual model building we’d been doing.  Here’s the post:

http://systemsthinkersanonymous.com/ssm-conceptual-models/

Building the models was very much a learning process.  We learned about building models, but also about the thing we were studying and thinking about, the canteen.  The process helped us to  reframe our thinking and understanding and we gained a number of insights into functions that would be required to run the canteen along the way.  This was helped, by us showing the work we had done to the canteen management team, who pointed out areas where our thinking was incomplete.  They also found the experience helpful and highlighted several areas to them they had not considered.

All new and improved Root Definition

Because our understanding of the situation changed, we decided to revisit our original Root Definition to see if was still appropriate.  It wasn’t , and so we modified it to reflect our new understanding.

First of all though, here is our previous Root Definition:

A facility and service owned and operated by the Local Authority through 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, in the belief that doing so will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues coming to the Local Authority by making a profit from selling food and drink and also by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations.”

And here is our updated version:

“A facility and service owned and operated by the Local Authority through their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks during regular office hours and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food available 24/7, as well as providing opportunities for local charities to supply and showcase produce and providing training opportunities for people with learning difficulties which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building, in the belief that doing so will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations, whilst the canteen facility’s direct revenue impact must be cost neutral.”

You can see we’ve added elements about the community focus of the canteen, using local charities as suppliers, and offering training and employment opportunities to people with learning difficulties, as well as defining the financial performance expectation it operates in.

Again, what stood out about SSM process is how iterative it is.  We came back to iterate the Root Definition, and in doing that, realised our Conceptual Models were not complete.  We hadn’t considered the need for the canteen to market its offering.  It was helpful that this process of iteration and development drew this out.

Our new and final models

So, we returned to our top level Conceptual Model and incorporated a “marketing” node.  Here is the revised top level model:

Revised top level Conceptual Model

You can see the new marketing node, number 6, in the middle of the model.  And here is the Conceptual Model for the marketing function:

Conceptual Model of Node 6 – Marketing

 

The end of the SSM road……..for now.

This brings our SSM story to a close for now. The next steps in the process would have been to compare the models to the reality to identify  gaps in the organisation and things that could be changed or improved. We did have some conversations with the canteen management about this and discussed areas for improvement with them, but given this was a case study and not a piece of work they commissioned from us, we were only able to go so far.

You can’t beat an occasional CATWOE

We certainly learned a lot on this journey and will be using SSM again.  Indeed, I have been using it frequently in my own work.  In particular, I find the CATWOE mnemonic very helpful when starting on a new project and trying to state what the purpose is.  That’s part of the beauty of SSM I think.  It is a 7 step process, but you can actually take most of those steps on their own and use them independently and get helpful results.  It’s like a bag of several tools you can pick and choose from, rather than a single approach. Although, of course, you can run all of the way through the process if the situation allows, and warrants it.

SSM Conceptual Modelling

SSM Conceptual Models

Dearest Systems Thinkers,

I can only apologise for the blog becoming quiet.  There have been a combination of reasons.  We’ve all become much busier at work these past months while our organisations go through a “turnaround” process, and our attendance at sessions has been a bit more sporadic.  I’ve personally become even busier out of work too and have become involved in a few more projects that have diverted me.  We’ve stuck with it though and have been plugging away at Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and other things, but at a slower pace.

Return to the Root Definition

If you recall, the last time I posted on  SSM, we had defined our Root Definition and extracted the key “Transformations” from it, with the intention of then building our top level conceptual model from them.  I had some doubts about whether this was going to produce a coherent model.  I was right.  

A way to coherence

When we came to build a conceptual model with these Transformations, it didn’t fit together.  There were not obvious links or relationships between each of the bubbles/transformations.  It wasn’t coherent.  This was a powerful insight, as it made us realise SSM and conceptual modelling in particular provides a way to check our thinking is coherent. We decided to dive straight in a build a model without referring to the Root Definition.  Here, after a number of iterations is what we came up with.

Canteen top level conceptual model
Harder than expected

We found this pretty difficult to do.  Because this type of modelling and thinking about things was new to us, because it’s quite difficult, and we also found that our 1 hour lunchtime sessions weren’t really long enough for us to get our teeth into it and build momentum. It always take us a little while to warm up and it seemed that as soon as we managed to begin to make progress, it was time to pack up and end the session.

Take your time

We eventually overcame this by deciding to get together for an extended session of 4 hours one Saturday morning. It was great. The extra time enabled us to really get into model building, develop our own technique and make proper progress.  We got stuck into the work  and redrafted and agreed our top level model, and then also completed 2 sub-level models.  So, if you are doing this yourself then I’d recommend you set aside plenty of time and space for it.  Here is a picture of some of us at work.

Saturday morning eager beavers
Keep it flexible

I mentioned we developed our own technique for doing this.  That probably makes it sound grander than it is.  We found that as we built models, we changed our minds about what the nodes should be included, how they should be titled and how they related (connected) to one another.  That meant trying to do this with pen and paper as we tried at first ended up producing a mess of crossed out and redrawn stuff.

The method we found worked well, was to start out by brainstorming the nodes we thought might be appropriate by using a post-it note for each one and writing it’s name on it.  A not dissimilar process to the first step in the creation of an Affinity Diagram approach we tried out previously.   The target is to have between 5 and 9 (7 +/- 2) nodes per model, but we would create as many as we could and then start to try to put them together the model and discard those that didn’t belong and reword any that needed it in order to fit coherently. We would connect them with arrow shaped post-it notes and reorganise until we were happy with what we had.  At that point, we would commit pen to paper and set out the model. Here’s a picture of us doing this.

This is how we do it
Building momentum

During that Saturday morning session we completed the top level model and then 2 sub-level models.  We found that after that, we were able to build 1 sub-level model in a 1 hour lunchtime session.  Once we had figured out what we were doing, it was a lot of fun building these models.  There was always a lot of debate as we went and we gained a deeper and broader understanding of the “problem space” we were looking at.

The Models

So, here are our models. I’ve drawn them up in Insight Maker and shown each individually.  It would be nice to be able to embed each of the sub-level models into it’s owner node in the top level model and then have it display when you click on that top level node.  Does anyone know a free piece of software that will do that?

1. Find out what people want
2. Prepare items for sale
3. Provide Canteen Space
4. Food and drink purchased
5. Monitor sales and stock
Peeling the layers of an onion

We decided the next steps would be to then pick a few nodes in the sub-level models and create underlying models for them.  You can keep on going down layers and getting into finer and finer levels of detail.  The question is how far is it helpful to go, and that is a judgement call.

Returning to the Root (again)

We also want go back to the top level model and compare it to our root definition and see if the worked together and whether we needed to modify the root definition now we had learned more about the problem space the top level “system”.  And then of course complete the remaining SSM steps, which include comparing our idealised conceptual models against the reality of the canteen set-up and identified where changes might be made.

How to handle management???

Another thing we weren’t quite sure how to handle is the general management and then monitoring functions.  The various tasks and people involved in the canteen will need to be managed. It wasn’t clear to us how to integrate that task/function into a conceptual model.  It needs to sit in all of them at all levels one way or another, but that would also seem wrong.  We figured that perhaps the management and also the monitoring of performance is somehow an external function that wraps around the whole thing.  We’re not confident that is right though and this will need more research.

We’ll be back!

We’ve put that on hold for the moment though and have been following a few other paths.  I’ll try to write up more about that, when I can.  There have been some interesting developments with the canteen though and our work is not done there.  I promise to write more.

Enjoy your weekend!

Tim