The CATWOE Checklist

Developing a Robust Problem Definition

The CATWOE Checklist - Developing a Robust Problem Definition

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Use CATWOE to focus on the real causes of your problems.

What do you do when you're faced with a really big business problem? Suppose, for example, that your staff retention is low and you don't know why.

Maybe you'd 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 aspect, you tend to stop looking for other potential issues. That's when you risk missing the core problem, which could be more serious than the problem you identified first. 

In this article, you can find out how CATWOE* can be a useful tool for defining and identifying the real problem.


Put simply, CATWOE is a mnemonic checklist for defining a problem.

It derives from the work of systems engineering professor Peter Checkland, who developed the problem-solving Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in the 1960s. 

SSM looks at the activities or business being examined as a system, and boils that system down to a “Root Definition.” 

SSM works best when the Root Definition identifies the people, processes and environment that contribute to the situation or problem that you need to analyze. These elements are represented by the mnemonic, CATWOE.

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 that you are investigating? What role will they play in the solution?
Environmental Constraints What are the constraints and limitations that may influence the solution and its success?

When you consider the situation from these six, very different, perspectives, you open your thinking beyond the issue that sits directly in front of you. As a result, the output of your brainstorming and problem solving will likely be be much more comprehensive.


You don't have to follow CATWOE in the order that the mnemonic suggests. In many cases, WTCAOE may be more effective, and it is the order that many current analysts follow.

How to Use CATWOE

Before you try to solve an important problem, use the CATWOE checklist to brainstorm the various people and elements that are affected. This will expand your thinking about the situation. 

We'll use our example of low staff retention rates to illustrate the four steps involved. 

Step 1: Describe the Situation

Define what you are thinking about. This is not a problem statement (that is, a full description of the issue that needs to be addressed); it is merely a statement that describes the situation. For example:

"Thinking about ways to improve staff retention."

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

For each CATWOE element, ask questions based on those in the table above, but which relate to the specific problem that you're trying to solve. Make sure that your answers cover all areas likely affected by the problem, and focus on the likely underlying causes. For example:

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.

Team members:

  • More work with lots of vacancies to fill.
  • Stress because of increased workload.
  • Low morale because of 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, and what will impact their success?"

HR department:

  • Look at recruiting techniques.
  • Look at internal systems that may be affecting turnover.

Organization wide:

  • Look at how employees are treated.
  • How are people trained and supported?
  • How can we encourage happiness at work?


  • Lots more work for everyone, may trigger changes in organizational culture.
T: Transformation

"What is being affected?"

The system of recruiting and selecting staff members including advertising, résumé screening, interviewing, testing, and 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 people? Or, are we driving the right people 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, and the 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 resistant to change.

Time and money – we need more of both.

Employment market – it's hard to find people.

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Step 3: Zero in on the Problem

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

Corporate culture.

Staff learning and development.

Step 4: Start to Solve the Problem

After going through CATWOE, you will have a much clearer idea of the nature of the problems you need to deal with.

You'll likely have a larger number of them, and presumably more root problems, than you started out with, so separate out those that you can identify. For example, you may come up with the following:

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

There's no effective onboarding.

The rewards that we give are not motivating or engaging people.

Then, begin your process of solving these problems. The strategies that you use will likely lie outside the scope of CATWOE, and will vary depending on the nature of the problems you tackle. You can find a range of problem-solving strategies here.

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, and Environmental constraints) that are influencing an issue of concern, you keep your perspective broad and are able to look at the issue from many angles.

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


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