One of the first papers to outline the suitability and merits of rapid assessment techniques in measuring the performance of existing canal irrigation systems. This was a response to the growing need to find cost effective methods to make manageable demands on staff, and to identify implementable actions with early benefit. The experience of irrigation systems assessment using traditional and more innovative techniques are outlined. Conclusions are drawn from these experiences and four key factors to success are put forward: standard programs traditionally have 'bad fit'; appraisal on the whole system; an operational plan, continuity and commitment for implementation. The paper provides a detailed account on how to approach rapid rural appraisal for irrigation systems, and provides generally applicable guidelines.