Developing a Robust Problem Definition

CATWOE - Developing a Robust Problem Definition

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CATWOE helps you to look before you leap.

What do you do when you're faced with a really big business problem? What if your employee retention was low, for example, and you wanted to know why?

Your first step might be to brainstorm the possible reasons, and apply a range of different problem-solving skills to fix them. But what if you've focused on the wrong problem, or you're just looking at one symptom of a larger problem? By focusing on one specific aspect, you tend to stop looking for other potential issues. That's when you risk missing the core problem, which could be much more serious than the problem you identified first. This is where CATWOE comes in handy.

Understanding CATWOE

In the 1960s Peter Checkland, a systems engineering professor, developed a problem-solving methodology called Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), which sought to apply systems principles to business and other "soft" problems.

SSM conceptualizes the activities or business being examined as a system, the essence of which is encapsulated in a "Root Definition."

In 1975, David Smyth, a researcher in Checkland's department, observed that SSM was most successful when the Root Definition included certain elements. These elements, remembered by the mnemonic CATWOE*, identified the people, processes, and environment that contribute to a situation, issue, or problem that you need to analyze.

CATWOE stands for:

Customers Who are they, and how does the issue affect them?
Actors Who is involved in the situation? Who will be involved in implementing solutions? And what will impact their success?
Transformation Process What processes or systems are affected by the issue?
World View What is the big picture? And what are the wider impacts of the issue?
Owner Who owns the process or situation you are investigating? And what role will they play in the solution?
Environmental Constraints What are the constraints and limitations that will impact the solution and its success?

When you look at all six of these elements, and consider the situation from all of these perspectives, you open your thinking beyond the issue that sits directly in front of you. By using CATWOE, the output of your brainstorming and problem solving should be much more comprehensive, because you have considered the issue from these six, very different, perspectives.


Before you try to solve an important problem, use the CATWOE checklist to brainstorm the various people and elements that are affected.

Taking the example of low employee retention rates that we used at the start of this article, start your thinking not with reasons why it is happening or by trying to identify solutions, but by using CATWOE to expand your thinking about the situation in general.

Step One

Define what you are thinking about. Remember, this is not a problem statement; it is merely a statement describing the situation.

"Thinking about ways to improve employee retention."

Step Two

Brainstorm ideas around the various CATWOE elements:

C: Customers

"Who is being served and what problems are they experiencing?"

Organization as a whole:

  • Lower productivity because not enough people.
  • High costs of retraining.
  • High costs of losing customers.


  • More work with lots of vacancies.
  • Stress because of increased workload.
  • Low moral with the high turnover.

Organization's Customers:

  • Low production and inexperienced staff affects quality and supply.
  • Higher levels of dissatisfaction.
A: Actors

"Who will implement the solution?"

HR department:

  • Must look at recruiting techniques.
  • Must look at internal systems that may be affecting employee leaving rates.

Organization wide:

  • Must look at how employees are treated.
  • How are employees trained and supported?
  • How can we keep people happy?


  • Lots more work for everyone, may trigger cultural changes.
T: Transformation

"What is being affected?"

The system of recruiting and selecting employees including advertising, resume screening, interviewing, testing, reference checking.

Other systems:

  • Performance evaluation.
  • Rewards and recognition.
  • Training and development.
  • Mentoring and coaching.
W: World View

"What is the larger picture?"

Is our company culture driving people away? Or are we not hiring the right employees? Or are we driving the right employees away? Do people feel that they – or we – are making a positive contribution to the world?

O: Owner

"Who owns the process currently?"

Individual managers across the organization HR Department.

Must be aware of resistance to change. Have to show value in terms of money and satisfaction.

E: Environmental

"What constraints must you work under?"

A culture that is traditional and change resistant.

Time and money – we need lots of both.

Employees' market – it's hard to find staff.

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Step Three

Analyze your "answers" to the CATWOE questions. Look for underlying processes that are having the greatest impact on the issue you are investigating. In the example above, the following likely have the greatest impact on the issue:

Corporate Culture.

Employee Training.

Step Four

From these processes, separate out the problems that you can identify and then begin your process of problem solving. Notice that you will have a larger number of problems, and presumably more root problems, than you would otherwise have started out with. For instance:

Our company culture isn't people-oriented – new people are left to "sink or swim."

There's no orientation training.

The rewards we give aren't motivating and engaging people.

Key Points

CATWOE is a method for expanding your thinking about a problem or situation before you zero in on a specific problem that you want to solve.

By analyzing the CATWOE factors (Customers, Actors, Transformation process, World view, Owner, Environmental constraints) that are influencing an issue of concern, you keep your perspective broad and are able to see the issue from many angles.

This is a great tool to keep in mind, especially when you first start thinking about a problem, or try to come up with a solution.

* Original source unknown. Please contact if you know what the source is.

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