Soft Systems Methodology (Definition, Steps and Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 21 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When an organisation encounters an issue with its systems or operations, they often require the guidelines of a recognised methodology to help them navigate the problem-solving process. The soft systems methodology (SSM) is a specific process an organisation can use for resolving issues that involve the collaboration of a variety of invested parties in a business to produce a workable resolution. Understanding what this system is and knowing how it can benefit an organisation can help you decide if it's the correct choice for you to use when encountering issues.

In this article, we explain what the SSM is, list the seven steps involved in the SSM process and outline some benefits of using the SSM to solve problems.

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What is the soft systems methodology?

The soft systems methodology is a learning process that involves a group of individuals working together to analyse problems in business and discover solutions to these problems. These individuals can include senior executives, collaborators of the organisation and other professionals involved. This method exists specifically to integrate these various facets of an organisation to foster communication and teamwork to assess and solve problems and system errors more efficiently.

The specific design of the SSM allows for a deeper analysis of the root causes of a problem and the challenges that exist outside the obvious issue. An organisation can find many benefits to this system style of problem-solving, which can help in the management of decision-making processes. This comprehensive system collects and analyses information about every aspect of a problem and the situations that caused them.

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7 steps of the SSM

Here's a detailed look at the seven steps involved in the SSM system and each phase of its implementation:

1. Identify the issue situation

The beginning phase of the SSM system requires all professionals involved in the process to get a clear understanding of the issue situation. This involves all parties collaborating together to gather information and explore different areas of the issue. During this phase of the process, professionals identify the situation in its entirety, from the effects it's having on the organisation to the ways other employees view it. Only after understanding the issue can the team tasked with resolving it begin to perform an analysis and start working on solutions.

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2. Communicate about the issue situation

The second phase of the SSM system involves parties communicating with each other about the issue. During this process, the team goes beyond simply identifying the issue and begins encouraging a variety of ideas and viewpoints regarding the way the issue is impacting the organisation and its work processes.

Collaborators can often have different points of view on how to approach the analysis and evaluation of an issue compared to a senior executive. This is an essential part of encouraging free and open communication between all parties involved because it can help promote an understanding of the different viewpoints and methods of various team members.

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3. Determine the root definition of the system

After the team has identified the issue and communicated about it with one another, they can work together to develop the root definitions to define the preferred functions of a system they require to solve the issue. This phase of the SSM system helps the team in analysing system requirements and assigning tasks to each individual member who has a direct responsibility in the project. You can use the customer, actors, transformation, worldview, owners and environmental constraints (CATWOE) method to determine the root definitions of an issue. Here's a look at the specifics of the CATWOE system:

  • Customers: The first aspect of this system involves the customers of a company. Customers are the actual users of the system being offered by the business.

  • Actors: These are the professionals involved in the resolution process. Their specific purpose involves working on the integration of the modification and transformation operations.

  • Transformation: This stage of the system involves the changes that occur during the resolution of an issue. Specifically, this involves the input-to-output changes that might occur during the problem-solving process.

  • Worldview: The worldview defines the overall method a team uses to make improvements in the management of a system. This specifically involves the consideration of all viewpoints from the parties concerned with the process and how the process may affect outcomes.

  • Owners: Owners are the senior figures in a company and have the final say over changes and improvements that a team can implement to solve a problem. They're the figures who have the authority to implement the actual changes to the systems the business uses and to the workflow.

  • Environmental constraints: These are the factors that may inhibit the team in what changes they can make and solutions they can offer. Environmental restrictions to a system can include, for example, extreme weather events that an airport has to factor in when considering alternative flight paths, delays or cancellations.

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4. Build a model that illustrates the approach

When you develop a model of a resolution concept, you can assist the team in defining the correct course of action that works towards achieving the improvement and integration of the proposed modifications to the system. During the process of the SSM system, the team produces a diagram that defines the overall objectives of their proposed changes to the system.

They then explain the strategies they're going to use to achieve these goals. Included in the diagram are certain metrics that the team uses to measure how the upgrades perform, determine how they progress and review the results their suggested improvements can have on the system.

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5. Make a comparison of suggested models to real-world examples

Ensuring the upgrades can face potentially adverse scenarios is a factor in assessing the strength of your proposed resolutions. Making a comparison of your proposed models to models that exist already in the real world can help you make an assessment of the effectiveness of your strategies. A team can use these comparisons to assess how their model might result in an effective outcome.

For example, a team can propose a system for upgrading the security and accounts software at a large organisation. They can then use the SSM system to determine how their proposed model compares to another organisation that has already made the same upgrade and whether the process achieved an effective result.

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6. Assess potential improvements

Teams can perform an analysis of potential strategies and alterations they can make to solve the issue and improve the system. They can analyse all potential benefits and risks involved with their proposals and adopt specific analysis methods that can gauge what sorts of mitigation strategies might be necessary to negate risks.

During this phase of the process, the teams analyse how effective and efficient their proposed changes can be to implement and also determine how feasible their proposals are in generating the desired outcome. This can help the team make a more in-depth analysis of which solutions they want to pursue.

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7. Develop a plan of action

In the final phase of the SSM process, the teams create their plan for implementing their proposed solution. All actions of the team may follow certain requirements specific to the organisation. For instance, the actions they take may satisfy not only the requirements of the system but their obligations to the owners of the business and other interested parties.

They can implement their plan and analyse its performance. If it doesn't achieve the desired effectiveness or efficiency outlined by these involved parties, they can cancel the upgrade and start the process over again. A valuable aspect of SSM is it's a quick process to turn around, so if your first plan doesn't work, you can always try another plan.

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Benefits of the SSM

Here's a look at some benefits you can find when using the SSM system:

  • Adds structure to complex problems: The SSM process can help you organise and structure the vast quantities of data that are often found when you're trying to solve a technical problem. SSM allows you to compartmentalise this information, which can make it easier to work through and consider more effective changes.

  • Develops your understanding of issues: The SSM process encourages all members of a team to communicate closely and to consider alternative points of view. This can help the team gain a better understanding of the way adversity can affect a system.

  • Highlights areas that require upgrading: The framework of SSM helps teams to define which areas of a system require improving. This can help them discover which course of action to take that can result in a more effective solution.

  • Generates solutions that achieve desired outcomes: The overall benefit of the SSM framework is how efficiently it can result in outcomes. It's an effective method for developing and integrating technical resolutions to issues in a timely and cost-efficient manner.


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