Tackle ill-structured problems

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Management Science has applied to tackle ill-structured problems, so methods used to structure problems are required by Management Scientists. Soft System Methodology (SSM) is one of these methods and it is appropriate for ill-defined situations. For instance, SSM is used to solve traffic jam - a problem that concerns complex problematical human situations. SSM is particularly strong for analysis and assessment and mainly contributes to exploring the personal dimension.

Over the decades, Management Science (MS) has moved to tackling ill-structured problems. That is because in real word there are normally various kinds of problem-situations, and usually problem stakeholders and practitioners may have different understanding and aspirations. Therefore, problem structuring methods (PSMs) are required by Management Scientists in order to enable the problems can be analysed and solved.

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is one of the methods utilised to structure problems. Unlike "hard" systems thinking, which can be applied to well-defined technical problems, "soft" systems thinking is appropriate for "fuzzy ill-defined situations involving human beings and cultural considerations" (Checkland and Scholes, 1999). For example, traffic jam during rush hours is a serious problem in most cities. It is a problem concerns complex problematical human situations, which may deal with citizens, companies and governments. Many sub-problems may lead to this disturbing result, like improper rules, inadequate facilities, too many cars and traffic accident. If "hard" systems methods are used to analyse this problem, it is too complicated to see clearly what is going on. SSM, however, is applicable to learn such a problem and is helpful in finding accommodations and taking purposeful action for improvement.

According to Mingers and Brocklesby (1997), there are four phases to help design an intervention in practice:

  • Appreciation of the situation.
  • Analysis of the information produced to understand and explain the situation.
  • Assessment of the postulated explanations.
  • Action to bring about changes.

SSM is particularly strong for analysis and assessment. It focuses more on understanding the situation and formulating the action.

Additionally, the real-problem situations are inevitably multidimensional. "There will be physical or material aspects, social and political aspects, and personal ones" (Rosenhead and Mingers, 2008). Compared with other PSMs, like Cognitive Mapping, Strategic Choice and Viable Systems Method (VSM), SSM appreciates all dimensions but mainly contributes to exploring the personal dimension, and it places an emphasis on Human Activity Systems (HASs).

Take the research of solving traffic jam problem for example, SSM yielded insights to the problem that other problem structuring approaches might not have done.

After defining what to explore, a rich picture is drawn to express the situation in all its richness. Elements showed in the picture represent the material dimension of the problem, such as money, roads, facilities, and cars. It is clear by analysing the picture that what the general situation is, who the participants are and where the conflicts are. The situation can be viewed as social systems as interaction between government and the public, between police and drivers, and between the road users. Also, the situation can be viewed as a political system, looking the relationship between the government, the city council and the police.

Afterwards, root definitions were determined to each relevant HAS, like "a city council-owned system to gather money from government and citizens to provide transportation service for public", and conceptual models were established based on the definitions. SSM pays a great attention to the importance of individual actor's viewpoints and clarifies such perspective in root definitions and conceptual models, such as worldview "city council, as a governmental organisation, is responsible to provide good public transportation service relied on laws and rules". This is also an analysis of the situation - "to revealing how surface appearances can be explained in terms of differing, and often implicit, worldviews" (Rosenhead and Mingers, 2008).

Finally, by comparing the conceptual models and the reality, feasible and desirable changes can be recognised. In another word, exploring definitions and separating the conceptual thinking from the real-world leads to the assessment of alternatives. For instance, in the model, traffic police is a main part for maintaining traffic condition, but in fact, there is usually lack of police on the roads. Therefore, there is a necessary to increase or rearrange traffic police.

The analysis will be different if other methods were used to solve this problem. Strategic Choice is less aimed at exploring a diversity of individuals' patterns of beliefs. VSM almost has nothing to offer in terms of individual actors. Cognitive mapping has strengths in analysing individual viewpoint but is weak in assessing possible alternative. Therefore, SSM is the only approach that evaluates distinct individual viewpoints and offers alternative solutions.


  • Checkland, P., 1999. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Chichester: Wiley.
  • Checkland, P. and Scholes J., 1999. Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Chichester: Wiley.
  • Mingers J. and Brocklesby J., 1997. Multimethodology: Towards a Framework for Mixing Methodologies, Omega, 25, pp. 489-509.
  • Rosenhead, J. and Mingers J., 2008. Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited: Problem Structuring Methods for Complexity, Uncertainty and Conflict. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley.
  • Williams, T., 2008. Management Science in Practice. Chichester: Wiley.