Improved Business Performance Using Soft Systems Methodology.
Submitting InstitutionLancaster University
Unit of AssessmentBusiness and Management Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Mathematical Sciences: Statistics
Education: Specialist Studies In Education
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), developed by Peter Checkland and
colleagues at Lancaster University, has been adopted worldwide for
tackling complex problems in both private and public sectors. It is used
widely in consulting practice, leading to major business and economic
impacts. In examples 1 and 2 we report major impacts, including a reshaped
multi-national business and extra profits of RMB 50M in a Chinese company.
In addition, SSM has helped effect major cultural change within
multinational business as described in example 3 and has been adopted as
part of mainstream business analysis (examples 4, 5 and 6). This has been
achieved through a deliberate policy of action research and
post-experience education, supported by academic and practitioner-oriented
SSM is the result of research by Professor Peter Checkland and colleagues
over a 30-year period including the years 1993 onwards. Checkland is now
Emeritus Professor in the Department of Management Science at LUMS and
current members of the Department continue to use and develop SSM.
Lancaster is the home of SSM and has led its development through on-going
research and practical application of systems thinking to a variety of
real-world problem situations facing managers in large and complex
SSM began with a realisation that `hard' problem-solving methodologies
were based on the assumption that problem solving is a straightforward
process. This assumption was embedded in approaches such as systems
engineering (SE) adopted for example, by Bell Labs during the 1960s. Such
SE assumed that objectives were clear cut and could be unambiguously
stated and tackled, using a reductionist approach. This allows a problem
to be broken down into manageable and independent chunks whilst attempting
to keep an eye on the whole system being designed or analysed.
Checkland's early action research demonstrated was that this is far too
simple a view and that a rather different approach was required,
particularly when analysing and designing systems that involve purposeful
human activity. As developed through further action research, SSM asserts
that problems, and their definitions, should be constructed and tackled in
an iterative manner, allowing learning to occur and encouraging
accommodation among stakeholders. This is well suited to complex
situations in which different stakeholders may hold distinct views.
The core of SSM is a cyclic process, often represented as seven steps, in
which participants negotiate acceptable problem definitions that enable
them to agree on appropriate action. It is widely taught in universities
around the world, from which relevant research papers continue to appear.
In addition, at least 30 master's students have been academically
supervised at Lancaster on industrial projects using SSM during the REF
period. A key component of the work of Checkland and his colleagues is its
reliance on action research, in which successive versions of SSM were used
in practice and improved over time, This process of cyclic refinement was
crucial for its development, but is also key component of SSM use. Action
research has also played a major part in the adoption and use of SSM
around the world. Thus the references given below are a mixture of
methodological development and action research.
References to the research
The papers cited below describe, in order, the use of SSM as a rigorous
approach to problem structuring, the place of SSM in general management
thinking, an action-research-based case study of its use in healthcare, a
substantive discussion of its role in information systems, two different
views of SSM and some requirements for its appropriate use. They have been
published in well-received and positively reviewed books and peer-reviewed
1. Checkland, P.B. and Scholes, J. (1999) Soft systems methodology in
action, revised edition, Wiley: Chichester
2. Checkland, P.B. (1994) `Systems theory and management thinking'. American
Behavioral Scientist, 38(1): 75-91.
3. Hindle, A., Checkland, P.B., Mumford, M. and Worthington, D.W. (1995)
`Developing a methodology for multidisciplinary action research: a case
study'. Journal of Operational Research Society, 46(4): 453-464,
4. Checkland, P.B. and Holwell, S. (1997) Information, systems and
information systems: making sense of the field. Wiley: Chichester.
5. Checkland, P.B. and Winter, M. (2006) `Process and content: two ways
of using SSM'. Journal of Operational Research Society, 57:
6. Checkland, P.B. (2012) `Four conditions for serious systems thinking
and action'. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 29(5):
465-469. DOI: 10.1002/sres.2158
Details of the impact
The adoption of SSM around the world in private and public sector
institutions has delivered significant measurable benefits and also
changes in culture and mind-set that lead to better performance. A general
indicator of the scale and range of its impact is given by a Google search
using the precise phrase "Soft Systems Methodology" which returns almost
120,000 hits including case studies (google.co.uk, October 15th,
2013). Lancaster is the home of SSM and four mechanisms have helped create
and sustain this impact:
- Teaching and publications by Lancaster and other academic institutions
(such as Australian National University, Copenhagen, Kent and Warwick).
- Application of SSM to real-world problem situations, resulting in an
accumulation of practical experience.
- Ongoing development of the methodology through continued action
research and practitioner sharing, es evidenced in example 4 below.
- Publication of practitioner-oriented books such as Checkland and
Poulter (`Learning for Action: a short definitive account of soft
systems methodology and its use for practitioners, teachers and
students', Wiley, 2006).
The six examples below were chosen for their clear evidence of different
and current forms of impact for SSM, based on its use in the UK and other
countries. Four are highly specific and the other two show the general
influence and impact of SSM. Together they show the impressive reach and
significance of the impact generated by SSM.
Example 1: Mars Petcare
Following the global economic downturn of 2008 most consumer goods
companies were facing increasing pressure on margins and volume growth. In
Europe Mars Petcare, a substantial business comprising several categories
each generating revenues of hundreds of millions of Euros, faced such a
challenge in 2009/10. One of the categories obtained consulting support
from a team led by Dr Jim Scholes, Visiting Professor to the Department of
Management Science at Lancaster University Management School. The team
worked with the European Head of the category to design an initiative
which brought together over 60 managers from HQ functions and country
management across Europe in a process of strategy co-creation. For just
over 4 months the managers worked together through a series of facilitated
workshops to develop shared understanding of the challenges facing the
business; identify growth options; agree strategic direction; and then
implement country-specific plans.
The initiative helped Mars's managers re-shape the business, focusing on
the relationship between owners and their pets and re-defining the
category logic within the company and with its customers. During 2010/11
the category management team was able to deliver tangible benefits from
their work: accelerating percentage growth of sales revenues into double
digits and achieving increased profits. Based on this success, the new
approach was adopted globally with the aim of building a worldwide
business with revenues of over $1B by 2015. This approach to strategy
co-creation was developed using Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) as a
diagnostic, design and learning tool.
Example 2: Tonson Adhesives
As a second example, Lui et al. (2012) report on a study conducted in
China in which a performance management approach based on SSM was designed
and successfully implemented. The company, Tonson Adhesives — the number
one Chinese company in the industry adhesives sector — returned profits of
RMB 100m in 2008.
As a result of the SSM project conducted by Lui and colleagues, which led
to a new performance management system, Tonson Adhesives reported a profit
increase of 50% during the year leading up to February 2010. This is clear
evidence of real-world impact on business performance based SSM's role in
the design of systems that support improvement in organisational
Example 3: Hitachi Project Management Division, Japan
The Japanese Association for Action Research (JAAR) was established in
2003, with Peter Checkland as Honorary Chairman and Professor Kenichi
Uchiyama (Diato Bunka University) as President. It engages in action
research with external organisations, using SSM.
Since 2003 a team from JAAR has facilitated a series of week-long,
bi-annual workshops, each for about 15 Hitachi systems engineers,
following the introduction of the Project Management Body of Knowledge
(PMBOK) standard in 2000 within Hitachi. The aims of the collaboration
were to reduce costs, improve delivery times and make Hitachi more
competitive in the marketplace by developing a new management style for
The workshops ask engineers to reflect on their own project management
style by using the question `What does it mean to manage a project?' This
approach revealed the importance of the qualitative or emotional side to
the project management work, allowing the PMO (Project Management Office)
in Hitachi and JAAR to encourage engineers to reevaluate the balance
between their working lives and personal expectations.
SSM has often been used in Western organisations to uncover and
understand the cultural environments in which work is conducted. However,
in Japan, the work culture was already well understood and integrated with
everyday life. JAAR used SSM in Hitachi to explore how this could be
theorized to provide the organization with a strategic advantage by making
the work of project managers more effective. This demonstrates the use of
SSM by a large Japanese multinational company that wished to change its
culture to increase its success.
Example 4: SSM underpins the development of an investment
prospectus in the Australian Dairy Industry
The Lighthouse Consulting Group, based in Victoria Australia, used SSM to
develop an investment prospectus for the Victorian Dairy Extension Centre.
The DEC assists farmers in making decisions that lead to increased
profitability, and has many stakeholders. Representatives took part in
this study, concluding that the industry was not enabling an acceptable
standard of risk management at the farm level through the use of
appropriate feeding systems. This led to an investment prospectus that was
signed off in May 2009 and then went to investors.
This is an example of SSM's use for project development purposes, helping
stakeholders reach accommodation that leads to appropriate action.
Example 5: Linking SSM to other analytical approaches in Sweden
Holm and Dahl (2011) focus on a different use of SSM, this time as a
precursor for building patient-flow simulation models in a new Swedish
hospital that wished to optimise the design of its new Emergency
Department in 2008. SSM enabled the team to understand and interpret
different stakeholder views, resulting in a successful design project for
the new ED.
Hospital emergency departments operate in conditions of great stress and
are rapidly changing environments on which to work. Their performance
depends on good staff communications, on close links with other areas of a
hospital and on suitable physical facilities. SSM
This is an example of its use as a precursor to detailed quantitative
modelling to ensure that the modelling leads to a better design by taking
formal account of stakeholder views.
Example 6: Routine use of SSM in the Defence, Science and
The Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) includes operational
analysis within its remit; the aim being to inform the development of the
Ministry of Defence strategy and policy and to improve cost effectiveness.
Within DSTL, SSM is in widespread use on a routine basis to support both
policy studies and cost-effectiveness work.
In illustration of this, the Chief Policy Scientist at DSTL states: `We
have been users of Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) since at
least 2000 and continue to do so. We expect our staff to be familiar
with its basic ideas and to employ them as appropriate either in toto or
in conjunction with other methods and approaches...Our experience is
that the SSM approach is highly valuable and enables us to make rapid
progress in our work and we regard it as a routine part of our
This demonstrates that SSM has become a routine method of analysis within
the large UK defence community; clear evidence of its success.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Example 1: Regional President Petcare — Latin America, Mars —
corroborates that the collaboration with Lancaster helped Mars's managers
to reshape their business achieving higher percentage growth of sales and
profits with the aim of building worldwide business revenue of over $1B by
Example 2: Lui, W.B., Meng, W., Mingers, J., Tang N. and Wang, W.
(2012) `Developing a performance management system using soft systems
methodology: A Chinese case study'. European Journal Operational
Research, 223(2): 529-540.
Example 3: Professor Kenici Uchiyama, Japanese Association for
Example 4: `Using
soft systems methodology to support extension program development in the
dairy industry', Lighthouse Consulting
Example 5: Holm, L-B. and Dahl, F.A. (2011) `Using soft systems
methodology as a precursor for an emergency department simulation model'.
OR Insight 24:168-189.
Example 6: DSTL Chief Policy Scientist — confirms that the
organisation has been using SSM since at least 2000 and expects its 400
analytical staff, who provide advice to Government on issues in Defence
and Security, to be familiar with its ideas to incorporate into their