Stage 3 Define Root Definitions of Relevant Systems

Checkland’s argument is that, until you have put a name to something, you cannot possibly understand its function or purpose. The Root Definition “names” the system in a structured way. A common problem with this stage is that, if you do not try to be precise in naming the system, you become confused as to who is performing the activities of the system and what those activities should be. Root definitions clarify alternate perspectives (system purposes), defining exactly what each purpose needs to accomplish.

3(a) Clarify what the system is to achieve or change, using input-output transformation diagrams.

There are two types of input-output transformation that can be used. The first, shown in Figure 1, is more useful for research, defining what Churchman calls “inquiring systems.”  It explores what changes need to be made – the gap analysis between the current state and the future state.

Transformation-Type1
Figure 1. Defining Input-Output Transformations, to Suggest the Purposes of the System

A second type of input-output transformation is used to define the human-activity processes (workflow-steps) that need to be performed for different purposes of the human activity system. It is this type of SSM model, shown in Figure 2, that I will demonstrate in the rest of this example.

Transformation-Type2

Figure 2. Defining Input-Output Transformations, to Suggest the Purposes of the System

The “system” of purposeful human activity is split up into [related] sub-systems of human-activity that reflect separate purposes (or goals). This is done by defining sets of transformations that explain how the system works (input/output) or how it needs to change. Input-output transformation diagrams separate the various purposes of the system of human-activity. They reflect multiple perspectives, so it is a good idea to include as many people as possible, in providing these perspectives. Include people from all levels of management and work, from all areas of the organization (both involved in, and external to, your human-activity system). Look at the system from as many “angles” as possible and attempt to understand them all – once you have defined them, you should present them to the core stakeholders, so that they may decide which of these perspectives are most useful, in achieving the sorts of changes that they need.

Parking I-O Transformations

Figure 3. Defining Input-Output Transformations, to Suggest the Purposes of the System

A set of input-output diagrams for a car parking/traffic management scheme is given in Figure 3 (some of these transformations may seem contentious, but try thinking about them from the perspective of the “owner”  of the complete traffic management scheme – State or City Government. I have tried to imagine what their objectives would be and therefore to devise a set of transformations which Government officials would choose to leave in the “system”.  These diagrams are most useful if the input relates to the output by a simple transformation – if you cannot put a simple name to the “process” by which the input is transformed to the output, then try another input  or output, or try splitting the input-output diagram into two stages. I also find it helpful to scribble the Weltanschhaung (the Worldview that makes this purpose meaningful) under each input-output diagram, to bear in mind the purpose of each transformation as you try to distinguish it from others.

3(b) Use the CATWOE framework to produce a Root Definition for each transformation

A Root Definition names (identifies) the system which supports each transformation.

The important thing is to examine each transformation from one perspective: you can happily repeat the exercise using another perspective, to see if you can integrate the two (sometimes this may not be possible, for example, how do you integrate the needs of drivers in transformation (1) with the needs of pedestrians?). If you cannot integrate competing perspectives, you must take a decision about whose perspective will have priority – this is where your client’s objectives come into play. In every change, there are winners and losers; your job is to make it explicit who loses and who wins!

Use the CATWOE framework to ask the following questions:

Customer: Who is the system operated for?
Who is the victim or beneficiary of this transformation-system?
Actor(s): Who will perform the activities involved in the transformation process?
It is important to define a set of people acting in concert. If you have multiple sets of people, this normally indicates that you are confusing two or more transformations.
Transformation: What single process will convert the input into the output?
It is important to define a single (not complex) transformation. If you have multiple verbs, this normally indicates that you are confusing two or more transformations.
Weltanschhaung
aka Worldview:
What is the view which makes the transformation worthwhile?
Understanding this element communicates the real purpose of the system from this perspective, so you should work hard at this part.
Owner: Who has the power to say whether the system will be implemented or not? (Who has the authority to make changes happen?)
Environment: What are the constraints (restrictions) which may prevent the system from operating? What needs to be known about the conditions that the system operates under?

When deriving Root Definitions, you often need to cycle around, redefining inputs and outputs, then trying to derive a definition from the input-output which you have defined. A common problem is that of being too sloppy in defining terms. For example defining the transformation in terms of “parking system” is meaningless. It tells us nothing about what the process is which gets us from cars parked in inappropriate places to cars parked in appropriate places. Similarly, defining the input-output as “illegally-parked cars” and “legally-parked cars” tells us nothing about how illegal and legal will be interpreted by different people involved in the system – you need to either define illegal in your Weltanschhaung (e.g. W: “Parking in congested streets causes accidents, so it should be punished by law”) or define the input and output more tightly (i.e. Input = cars parked in congested streets; Output = no cars parked in congested streets). By being precise about terms, everyone involved in the system understands exactly what is involved – what activities need to take place and how the system’s success can be measured.

4. Worked Example: Developing Root Definitions From Input-Output Transformations

Figures 4(a) and 4(b) provides a Root Definition for the systems represented by input-output diagrams (2) and (7), from the set of transformations relevant to a traffic management/car parking system in Figure 3.

The two root definitions derived above describe completely different systems. These are definitions which involve a completely different set of goals and activities. This is why we use SSM to analyze a situation: in a conventional systems analysis, it would be very easy to skimp on the analysis by using input-output diagram (1) to define our system. All the other transformations may well be intended by the Government, but if they are not stated explicitly, they may well be left out of the eventual system because no-one remembers to include them!

SSM-Transformation-Stage37

Figure 4a: Root Definition for Input-Output Diagram (2)

CATWOE:

Customer: Pedestrians
Actor(s): Parking Enforcement Officers (Wardens and Police)
Transformation: Penalize parking that puts pedestrians at risk
Weltanschauung: Pedestrian safety should have priority over driver convenience. But drivers will not consider pedestrian safety unless they fear punishment
Owner: Local Government Administration
Environment: Unlimited road-use is considered a right by most drivers and drivers have powerful political lobby groups.
Any system to administer road-use must be self-financing.
Most local Government administrations regard road safety as low priority.

Root Definition:
A system owned by Local Government officials, where Traffic Wardens punish parking which puts pedestrians at risk, on behalf of pedestrians, because pedestrian safety should have priority over driver convenience and drivers will not consider safety a priority unless they fear punishment. The system will operare under the constraints of powerful drivers’ political lobby groups, who consider unlimited road-use a right, the need for a self-financing system and the low priority that local Government gives road safety.

BD14539_

SSM-Transformation-Stage38

Figure 4b: Root Definition for Input-Output Diagram (7)

CATWOE:

Customer: Environmental lobbyists (the “public”)
Actor(s): Government representatives
Transformation: Make driving less attractive than public transport
Weltanschauung: The number of cars on the road is directly related to environmental degradation and public health problems
Owner:  Local Government Administration
Environment: Unlimited road-use is considered a right by most drivers and drivers have powerful political lobby groups.
Financial incentives alone will affect poor drivers but not wealthy ones

Root Definition:
A system owned by Local Government Administration, where Local Government Officials make driving less attractive than public transport on behalf of Environmental Lobbyists among the public because the number of cars on the road is directly related to environmental degradation and public health problems, but limited by the need to find alternatives to financial incentives alone and the power of drivers’ lobby groups.

BD14539_

The root definition should not describe a method of doing something (how the system works), but what needs to be done (system purpose). If we defined the transformation as a “how” mechanism, e.g. “charge more for road use than for public transport” or “make road use more expensive than public transport” (the “obvious” way of defining this transformation!), then we would miss the opportunity to think laterally about ways of incentivizing the use of public transport vs. disincentivizing driving. Maybe we will not think of any ways of doing this, other than by financial measures. But at least we are leaving in the opportunity to do this (and to get suggestions from stakeholders about how to do this), by defining the transformation in terms of “what” and not “how”. We also leave open the opportunity to make the system more effective and so change things for the better – this should be the point of a really good system requirements analysis, rather than just automating what’s there  …

 

When working with business people, it may be difficult (and tedious) for them to define the CATWOE elements for each transformation. In these cases, I use a minimalist root definition, as shown in Figure 5.

Transformation process
Success measure = what a successful transformation will achieve (measure for evaluation)
Worldview = how the world works and why this improvement is worth achieving

Figure 5.  A Minimalist Root Definition, Used Where Defining CATWOE Elements Presents Barriers to Working With Stakeholders

The most important part of the CATWOE is the Weltanschhaung(W), as this communicates why we want to achieve this purpose of the system. So we need to work hard at communicating a rationale for the transformation. If we just said W: “Parking should be punished by law”, this does not communicate the perspective of how important it is that this should happen, or why it should happen. However, W: “Parking in congested streets causes accidents, so it should be punished by law” communicates two things – the rationale for prevention of parking in congested streets and the reason that the stakeholder wants this as a purpose of the system. Defining the worldview that makes a transformation meaningful, in combination with the success criteria as shown in Figure 5, provides a “minimalist” Root Definition.

Stage 4: Deriving Conceptual Models

Deriving a conceptual model is a method of analyzing the activities which need to take place in order to clearly define what the actors need to do in order to achieve the transformation. Do not include activities performed by anyone other than the actors whom you have named in the root definition (and if possible, limit the actors to one group of people – activity-monitoring becomes very complicated when more than one group are involved). Again, disciplined thinking is required – list the activities needed to achieve the objectives of the system. It is important also to include activities which monitor the system and feed-back results, so that system activities may be performed effectively. Ask: what defines success for this system? how can I measure that success? what do my actors need to do, to measure success?

I have chosen to provide a conceptual model for system (7), in Figure 6. The Root Definition for this system is:

A system owned by Local Government Administration, where Local Government Officials make driving less attractive than public transport on behalf of Environmental Lobbyists among the public because the number of cars on the road is directly related to environmental degradation and public health problems, but limited by the need to find alternatives to financial incentives alone and the power of drivers’ lobby groups.

The list of activities which I perceive as necessary for this transformation are:
1.  Determine what factors make driving more attractive than public transport
2.  Assess what action can be taken to affect those factors by Local Government Officials
3.  Take those actions
4.  Measure the number of people who transfer from cars to public transport
5.  Measure the impact upon the environment of that transfer
6.  Report to the public on the results.

Figure 6: A Weak Conceptual Model for the System of Transformation (7)

Note that this conceptual model has fallen into the “consultancy mode” trap. What I have defined here is not what needs to be done, but how I, as a consultant, intend to find out what needs to be done and then take action. This happens whenever you do not have sufficient information from the stakeholders about what actually needs to be done – so you fudge the set of requisite activities! So what to do? As a facilitator, I would interview the core stakeholders and understand what they would like to happen, to make public transport more attractive than driving. I would then derive a new conceptual model.

Let us imagine that I have done this and the core stakeholders suggested two main strategies for achieving transformation (7):

  • Increase fines for driving offenses and cross-subsidize public transport with the revenue raised.
  • Make driving more difficult and time-consuming than public transport by rationing road use.

The list of activities which the (participant) stakeholders perceive as necessary are:

  1. Determine fair increases needed to subsidize public transport and extent to which road use should be rationed.
  2. Increase fines for driving offences.
  3. Implement the fines.
  4. Gather revenue from fines on drivers found to be committing driving offences.
  5. Subsidize public transport using fines revenue, to lower prices by 20%.
  6. Ration road use (e.g. install traffic-lights that only allow a few cars through at a time).
  7. Measure the number of people who transfer from cars to public transport
  8. Assess the impact upon the environment of that transfer
  9. Report to the public on the results.

The new conceptual model is shown in Figure 7:

Figure 7: A Strong Conceptual Model for the System of Transformation (7)

An important element of conceptual models are the feedback loops. There are normally two feedback loops in any conceptual model:

  • An internal feedback loop, that permits actors involved in the human-activity system perspective modeled to adjust how they perform their work (in this case, this loop is between the “Assess” and “Determine” activities).
  • An external feedback loop, between the inputs and the outputs of the activity system model. This permits managers to assess and manage the system of activity as a whole. (This loop is indicated by the dotted lines on the model).

To permit the effective management of any system, you need to define a measure of success for a particular transformation. This is shown below the conceptual model in Figure 7.

© Copyright Susan Gasson, 2014-17. Created 12 December 2014.