By Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA
(Blog #10 EMBOK series)
In this ninth installment on the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge, I tackle a subject near and dear to my heart: Systems engineering. Today, I’m going to share an overview of what systems engineering is and some of the major themes and concepts from that domain.
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What Is Systems Engineering?
One of the first issues most people face in understanding systems engineering is in defining what systems engineering is in the first place. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) calls systems engineering an interdisciplinary approach and means for the realization of successful systems. Systems engineering has been called a practice, a process, and a profession. A system can be just about anything that transforms inputs into outputs, but is traditionally understood to be a large scale, complex design, like a warship, or an enterprise, for example.
Systems engineering emerged as a response to the failure of traditional engineering design methods to deal well with the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of engineering designs, particularly in the defense and aerospace industries following the Second World War.
Systems engineering aims to deal with the complexity and complicatedness of modern systems through specialized techniques that allow for systems that, at the end of the day, perform how they’re meant to at a cost agreeable to the customer.
What Does Systems Engineering Focus On?
Systems engineers focus a great deal of time and attention on defining needs and functions early in the development of a system. Before any detailed design, there are several iterations of requirements definition and analysis to ensure that what is being designed meets the strategic objectives and the tactical needs of the acquiring organization. After all, if you’re designing a fighter jet, there are a lot of needs and requests that need to be balanced and understood!
Along with a focus on detailed requirements gathering, there is also a focus on documentation. While this is important for all engineers, the importance of careful documentation grows exponentially along with the complexity of the system, the number of stakeholders involved, and the timespan over which the design is executed.
Another area of particular focus for the systems engineer is on the full lifecycle of the system. While there is no one “correct” lifecycle, INCOSE suggests that all systems progress through the following stages (not necessarily sequentially):
Systems engineering demands that a system be designed with all of these stages in mind from the start. For example, understanding the constraints in place to retire a given system will likely influence the materials used in the production stage.
Key Concepts in Systems Engineering
System – A system is a “whole” consisting of interacting “parts”. For systems engineering purposes, systems are generally man-made, developed and used for a specific environment to deliver specific benefits.
Emergent Behaviour – A system’s emergent behaviour is that which cannot be fully understood by the behaviour of the individual constituent parts. Systems engineers seek to understand and manage emergence in their systems.
Validation and Verification – A system is valid when it’s the right system for the job. A system is verified when it has been shown to meet all of its requirements. In other words, validation and verification are used to show that you built the right system, and that the system was built right.
Enabling Systems – Enabling systems are those other systems that exist at various points throughout the lifecycle of a given system that enable it to exist or operate. For example, an airport would be an enabling system for an airplane during the airplane’s utilization stage. A factory could be an enabling system for that same airplane’s production stage.
Value of Systems Engineering
The use of systems engineering can be extremely valuable when conducting systems projects. A study by Eric Honour showed that spending 14% of a systems project’s budget on systems engineering helped those projects get completed on time and on budget. The same study showed that over- or under-spending on systems engineering was correlated with poor budget and schedule performance.
Practical Applications for Engineering Managers
Perhaps the most important takeaway for non-systems engineers is that an early focus on a system’s constraints and requirements can pay enormous dividends later in the systems’ life. While it can often be tempting to jump into design in order to show “progress”, patience in the early days of a project can be extremely valuable. I suspect many of us have been in situations where we worked quickly to complete an assignment, only to have our customer say, “This isn’t what I wanted!”, even if it was what they asked for. Using the tools and techniques developed by systems engineers can avoid this kind of problem, and help get the right systems delivered, on time, and on budget.
About Patrick Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, ASEP is a recognized expert in engineering management and leadership with expertise in systems engineering, project management and product management. You can read more from Pat at the Engineering & Leadership blog.