A Look at Soft Systems Methodology


Soft Systems Methodology is an important tool in systems research. The paper first will example SSM and where and why it was created. It will then explore the different areas and stages of SSM, while talking about the different methods the user can use in order to create a soft system. The paper will then conclude with the pros and cons of Soft Systems Methodology and explain situations that best use SSM.

What is SSM?

“Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a cyclic learning system which uses models of human activity to explore with the actors in the real world problem situation, their perceptions of that situation and their readiness to decide upon purposeful action which accommodates different actor’s perceptions, judgments and values.”(Checkland, 1999)

SSM attempts to learn and appreciate the problem situations between the groups of stakeholders rather than set out to solve a problem that is pre-defined (Huaxia). This soft or ‘purpose exploring’ approach helps managers to improve their processes when it comes to the decision making about their companies purpose (Torlak). There are two modes to SSM, real world activities and systems thinking about real world. Most work involves interviews and meetings to gain insight of the problem situation, this is represented by the use of ‘rich pictures’ and/or ‘CATWOE’. Systems thinking will use concepts such as; emergent properties, communication, hierarchy, and control to identify ‘relevant systems’ which could provide useful information (IfM Management Technology Policy). SSM is a systemic methodology that focuses on the whole, instead of the parts (Mehregan, 426).

The Origin of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)

To better understand SSM, we must first consider why it was created in the first place. It originated from the understanding that “hard” Systems Thinking such as, Operations Research techniques, was inadequate for the complexity of large organizational issues (Wang). Soft Systems Methodology was created by Peter Checkland for the main purpose of dealing with these large issues. During his career, he had been working with many hard systems methodologies. He saw how the current systems were inadequate for the purpose of dealing with high levels of complex problems, which had a large social component. In the 1960s, he went to the University of Lancaster to research this area further (Checkland, 2000). This is where he would conceive his “Soft Systems Methodology” through his research projects and years of applications and refinements. It wasn’t until 1981 that Peter published the systems. Now, Peter is a professor and researcher in the field of Software Engineering (Weeks).

Analyses and Techniques

What happens in an SSM intervention?

When you have a complex organizational problem, SSM intervention is used to help break down the issue. SSM does have a clear structure, but it is up to the practitioner to use it in a smart, flexible way. The user must see the problem they face as a system. After, they form it into an unstructured problems, creating a conceptual model in decision making. The development model of the system can be done my discussion with the stakeholders and joint problem solving (Prasetyo).

The SSM intervention follows as such:

One cannot simply perform these four stages and get a ‘right’ answer. They must take these four stages as a bases for action, keeping each in mind (Hopkins).

How do you use SSM?

There are seven steps to the SSM model. They do not represent a single process that must be followed from start to finish, after, giving you a ‘right’ answer. The seven step diagram is shown below:

SSM Diagram

(Image provided by, Hopkins)

Step 1: Appreciate the problem situation

Step 2: Write the problem situation

Step 3: Formulate root definitions

Step 4: Build conceptual models

Step 5: Compare models with real world

Step 6: Define possible changes

Step 7:Recommend actions


These are a process, by which the user may repeat as many times as needed, before a reasonable agreement is reached (Liu). The SSM process is a process by which everyone can learn; the practitioner learns about the organization, members of said organization learn about diversity within the organization, and about their fellow coworkers. Through this process; thinking, discussion, accommodation, and re-thinking practical ways to move forward can be found (Hopkins).

When the user begins to formulate the root definition in step three, there are two ways of doing this; Rich Pictures and/or CATWOE.

Rich Pictures

Rich Pictures adds value to your system. It provides a more detailed visual representation of a complex system. There are no real rules as to what to include in a Rich Picture, and there are no syntaxes. Given its unrestricted nature, you can address or highlight key considerations of the system (Couprie).

There are many advantages to using Rich Pictures, some include:

Rich Picture Chart

(Image provided by, Champion)

Some may argue that Rich Pictures have its own set of disadvantages, these include unstructured and confusing images, symbols or metaphors that could potentially lead to conflicting points-of-view. However, despite these negatives, we use Rich Pictures in our day-to-day activities. Simply drawing something on a piece of paper or whiteboard to help support and explanation is a Rich Picture (Pham).


The parallel of Rich Pictures is CATWOE. CATWOE is a set of questions that help complement the Rich Picture (Scnat). This is a process to which the user engages with the stakeholders and build their model as they gain more knowledge. This is not something to do in one sitting.

There are six elements that make up a well formulated definition:

(Australian National University)

The user needs to formulate questions that goes with each of these field. If they follow this guide, they will build a strong set of questions that should give them enough information to bring back promising results (Pham).

Benefits of SSM

Soft Systems Methodology helps structure a complex organizational and political situations. It can allow the user to deal with them in an organized manner and forces them to look for solution that can be more than just technical (Weeks).

Limitations of SSM

While the importance of this methodology has been realized, it also has a few limitation. The fourth stage in the system has no modeling tool, along with a definite technique to compare solutions in the real world. It also needs to factor in the effectiveness of system thinking. If participants have little knowledge and experience with the so-called problem, it will be harder to come up with a solution (Hanafizadeh, 326). When working with SSM, it requires the user to adapt to a new approach that some may find difficult to do. The user must also be careful not to narrow the scope of the investigation too early, this could cause issues later on. It can also be difficult to assemble the richest picture without giving it a particular structure and solution on the problem situation. The user can face difficulties interpreting the world in a loose way (Weeks). Another limitation of this methodology is the revising process. For example, when changes are implemented simultaneously, it may cause conflicting results. This may result in adding other methodologies, such as Soft System Dynamics Methodology (SSDM). Combining these methodologies together will create a synergetic tool for solving soft problems (Hanafizadeh, 325).


The soft systems methodology targets the complex organizational business and process models, identifying unstructured problems in a holistic view. It helps to provide a clear approach to the changes that need to be made to prepare the ideal problem solution (Mehregan, 432). Though it is an older methodology, it has adapted and changed over the years and is still very much alive today. When using SSM it has the potential to hold methodological lessons and situations of concern (Watson). It gives us an understanding of how humans try to take purposeful actions based on their own interpretations of the situation (Holm).


Australian National University. “Soft Systems Methodology.” URL: http://press.anu.edu.au/dialogue_methods/mobile_devices/ch03s10.html

Champion, Paul. “Rich Pictures: Cool Extension of Mind Mappying for Helping in Complex Change Situations.” Jan 2010. URL:http://thewanderingiphone.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/01/rich-pictures- cool-extension-of-mind-mapping-for-helping-in-complex-change-situations.html

Checkland, Peter and Jim Scholes. “Soft Systems Methodology in Action.” Wiley, 1999.

Checkland, Peter. “Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective.” John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Systems Reasearch and Behavioral Science, Nov. 2000. (S11).

Couprie, Dale, Alan Goodbrand, Bin Li and David Zhu. “Soft Systems Methodology.” URL: http://web.archive.org/web/20130112032658/http://web.archive.org/web/20071004205233/http://sern.ucalgary.ca/courses/seng/613/F97/grp4/ssmfinal.html#TOP

Gasson, Susan. “The Process of Soft Systems Methodology.” 2013. URL: http://cci.drexel.edu/faculty/sgasson/SSM/Process.html

Holm, Lene Berge and Fredrick A. Dahl. “Using Soft Systems Methodology as a Precursor for an Emergency Department Simulation Model.” OR Insight, Sep 2011. (168-189).

Hopkins, Tim, Iain Whitford, Michael Pidd, and Mark Winter. Management Science Department at Lancaster University, UK. “Introduction to Soft Systems Methodology.” URL: http://www.learnaboutor.co.uk/strategicProblems/m_s_3frs.htm.

Hanafizadeh, Payam and Rojin Aliehyaei. “The Application of Fuzzy Cognitive Map in Soft System Methodology.” Syst Pract Action Res, Vol 24, Issue 4, Aug 2011. (325-354).

Huaxia, Zhang. “Soft Systems Methodology and ‘Soft’ Philosophy of Science.”Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Vol 27, Issue 2, Mar/April 2010. (156-170).

IfM Management Technology Policy. “Soft Systems Methodology.” Institute of Manufacturing, Dept. of Engineering, Cambridge. URL: http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/dstools/soft-systems-methodology/

Liu, Wenbin B., Wei Meng, John Mingers, Ning Tang and Wei Wang. “Developing a Performance Management System Using Soft Systems Methodology: A Chinese Case Study.” European Jornal of Operation Research, Vol 223, Issue 2, Dec 2012. (529-540).

Mehregan, M. Reza. “An Application of Soft System Methodology.” Procedia, Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier Ltd. 2012. (426-433).

Pham, Vinh. “Rich Pictures and CATWOE: Simple yet Powerful Scope-Modelling Techniques.” 2014. URL: http://elabor8.com.au/rich-pictures-and-catwoe-simple-yet-powerful-scope-modelling-techniques/

Prasetyo, Hanung Nindito and Surendro, Kridanto. “Designing a Data Governance Model Based on Soft System Methodology (SSM) in Organization.” Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology. Aug, 2015. (46-52).

Scnat. “Soft Systems Methodology.” Swiss Academy of Sciences. URL: http://www.naturalsciences.ch/topics/co-producing_knowledge/methods/soft_systems_methodology

Torlak, Gökhan N. and Büşra Müceldili. “Soft Systems Methodology in Action: The Example of a Private Hospital.” Systemic Practice and Action Reaearch, Vol 27, Issue 4, Aug 2014. (325-361).

Wang, Wei, Webin Liu, and John Mingers. “A Systemic Method for Organizational Stakeholder Identification and Analysis Using Soft Systems Methodology (SSM).” European Journal of Operational Research, Vol 264, Issue 2, Oct. 2015. (562-574).

Watson, Richard B. “Suggestions for New Application Areas for Soft Systems Methodology in the Information Age.” Systemic Practice and Action Research, Vol 25, Issue 5, Oct 2012. (441-456).

Weeks, Peter. “Applying Systems Thinking to Non-Systemic Situations. Explanation of Soft Systems Methodology of Checkland.”The Executive Fast Track, 2015. URL: http://www.12manage.com/methods_checkland_soft_systems_methodology.html