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  • 09 Feb 2019 5:19 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly by Janel Anderson. Gale House: Farmington Hills, MI (2018). 230 + ix pages. US$15.95 (paperback).

    As a young manager, I dreaded doing performance reviews. I never felt good about receiving performance feedback – even when it was stellar – from my managers in the past. I didn’t know how to conduct the performance review with my own staff and without all of us feeling bad.

    What I desperately needed, as a new engineering manager, was a toolkit for communication, especially those very difficult conversations like performance reviews. Janel Anderson’s book, “Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly,” offers methods for negotiating these difficult topics. Applying her techniques can improve both workplace and other relationships by increasing our ability to handle uncomfortable conversations.

    “Head On” is divided into three sections. The first section summarizes neuroscience studies explaining why seemingly intelligent and competent people either become belligerent or shut down when faced with complex, emotionally-charged conversations. Part 2 provides tools, tips, and guidance for approaching sticky topics at home or at work. Finally, Part 3 gives the advice that I needed as a young engineering manager – how to handle performance reviews – along with other typical professional contexts where communication is challenged (meeting, senior management presentations, and so on).

    Part 1: Neuroscience of Difficult Conversations

    Dr. Anderson starts “Head On” with a quick review of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Though we are no longer trying to outrun lions in the jungle, our not-so-deeply buried animal instincts kick in whenever we feel threatened. “Our bodies do not distinguish between modern office politics and a saber-toothed tiger chasing us down” (pg. 11). So, we “fight” in difficult conversations by yelling or screaming, and we may literally take “flight” by leaving the room to avoid the discussion. Many people will take “flight” by simply disengaging from the situation but remaining physically present.

    Anderson’s research into neuroscience also shows that human beings will assume a negative outcome when presented with an ambiguous situation. Of course, this is just the case when office rumors and gossip outweigh facts and authentic conversations.

    The best tip from Part 1 of “Head On” is to become better in tune with your own physiological reactions to stress. Does your neck ache or your fists clench when the fight-or-flight mechanism is triggered? When you first recognize these symptoms, ground yourself by touching a familiar object (like your watch or eyeglasses) to validate that the conversation is challenging but also to reassure yourself that you can approach the topic calmly and logically.

    Part 2: Step-by-Step Instructions

    In Chapters 4 through 8, Anderson provides a manual to guide us through the difficult conversations. First, we need to prepare for the conversation. This means taking the time to understand the need to discuss the topic and clearing our emotions.

    What does “clearing emotions” mean? We are often running from home to work and from meeting to meeting without taking a break. The stress from a situation earlier in the day can put us on edge and make a complicated situation worse because we let our emotions run together. Anderson advises taking a few moments before a tricky conversation to ground yourself (touch your watch or eyeglasses) and then clear your body of the past emotions.

    From the neuroscience viewpoint, this is why you “take a deep breath” since these actions can literally clear toxic substances from the blood stream that build up stress. If possible, Anderson recommends a short walk or jog in a green space to effectively clear those negative emotions prior to a challenging discussion. Light physical activity helps prepare the body and mind for the next activity.

    Next, the conversation must start with verifiable facts to keep your conversation partner from responding defensively and triggering his or her fight-or-flight mechanism. Practice active listening and acknowledging alternate perspectives. Then, you should close the conversation with agreement on action steps.

    Here, Anderson describes two types of agreement. Type 1 agreement is resolved in a single conversation. Type 2 agreement, however, might require multiple discussions to achieve the desired behavior change with your team or staff member. In a Type 2 agreement, you close the conversation by describing your motivation and commitment to change the situation. Then, you ask for their commitment in return.

    Part 3: Contextual Difficult Conversations

    Finally, Chapter 11 in Part 3 addresses the specific situation of a performance review, often a very difficult conversation even when there is good news. Of course, performance feedback between a manager and direct reports should be ongoing and not reserved for an annual discussion. Feedback that is prompt can result in changed behaviors while delayed feedback more often yields a defensive response or disengagement with the task.

    As I learned and as Anderson describes (pgs. 179-182), a manager must be able to read non-verbal cues that employees present during the review meeting. Often words don’t match the person’s posture which signals discord and lack of agreement with a go-forward plan. It’s okay to take a break during the discussion if you feel your emotional triggers (fight-or-flight) whether you are giving or receiving performance feedback.

    Finally, Anderson closes “Head On” by acknowledging our human nature to make mistakes while we seek perfection. If we make an error, we can learn from it. Some difficult conversations start with “I’m sorry” and the parties build trust form there.

    Handling Difficult Conversations

    “Head On: How to Approach Difficult Conversations Directly” by Janel Anderson is an easy to read book with lots of tips and exercises to help us improve our workplace communications. Strongly grounded in neuroscience, the author provides many contextual examples of challenging discussions, providing guidance and step-by-step instructions to address specific conversation types. I recommend this book to anyone engaged in communication, but especially for engineering managers and team leaders responsible for employee development. Moreover, each of us can apply the actions and methods of “Head On” to improve our own abilities in conducting difficult conversations.

    What triggers your fight-or-flight mechanism? How can you practice grounding yourself and clearing your emotions before a difficult conversation?

    Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, PE, PMP, CPEM, NPDP
    Global NP Solutions, LLC

  • 31 Jan 2019 3:57 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    Friends: The New Year is barely a month old and yet the news is filled with stories of struggle and hardships, but also the rays of joy that help us all to keep going. I know some of your personal stories and want you to know that we at ASEM do care; we celebrate your successes and shed tears with those who have experienced loss or uncertainty. Part of what allows us to do this is that we are small enough to be agile, but it is also true that it is important that we grow and that we know your thoughts on the society. We need to know what you find valuable, what products matter to you, and how we can do better. One important step is providing feedback. I ask that each of you consider completing the very short survey from our Communications Team. It only takes a few minutes and the information is so helpful to us! Here is a link to the survey:

    Also, a quick reminder that the call for participation is open for the 2019 ASEM International Annual Conference. More details on the conference and the 40th Anniversary party for ASEM is found below. Note that you will need to create a new profile as we’ve changed software management systems, but it is quick and easy!Friends: The New Year is barely a month old and yet the news is filled with stories of struggle and hardships, but also the rays of joy that help us all to keep going. I know some of your personal stories and want you to know that we at ASEM do care; we celebrate your successes and shed tears with those who have experienced loss or uncertainty. Part of what allows us to do this is that we are small enough to be agile, but it is also true that it is important that we grow and that we know your thoughts on the society. We need to know what you find valuable, what products matter to you, and how we can do better. One important step is providing feedback. I ask that each of you consider completing the very short survey from our Communications Team. It only takes a few minutes and the information is so helpful to us! Here is a link to the survey:

    Finally, I hope that you’ll consider where your journey with ASEM will take you next! We have several leadership opportunities available in the society and a new assortment of projects for the upcoming year. Let me know if I can provide information on any opportunity and if you’re contacted in the upcoming weeks by a member of nominating committee about an ASEM office, I hope that you’ll consider saying yes!

    With warm regards,


  • 31 Dec 2018 10:55 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    ASEM Friends: Here’s hoping that each of you have been able to enjoy some downtime and celebrate the magic of the holiday season with friends and family! Whatever holidays are close to your heart, all share common ground of warmth, peace and good will to all and it is a special time for many. It can also be a time for considering next steps or opportunities that can add meaning to your life.

    We are so pleased that many have continued to answer the call to service to ASEM on the Executive Committee, Board of Directors, and at ASEM HQ. One new addition is featured in the newsletter below and we are pleased to welcome Jose as the new Northeast Regional Director! In addition, we are delighted to welcome Annmarie Uliano as Communications Director and Bryan Mesmer as Publications Director. We’re also thrilled to welcome back former ASEM President, Geert Letens, as Chair of Fellows! Look for more on them in future issues. In this issue you’ll also find the call for participation for the upcoming ASEM IAC. You won’t want to miss ASEM’s 40th Birthday Party so mark your calendars. It will be a blast! There are details on opportunities for service on upcoming ASEM Projects as well.

    Looking forward to ringing in 2019 with each of you!


  • 26 Dec 2018 1:00 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)
    By Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP

    (EMBOK Blog Post #11)

    Greetings!  We continue our yearlong series of EMBOK (Engineering Body of Knowledge) blogs with a discussion of Domain 10, “Legal Issues in Engineering Management”.  And while this isn’t the most compelling domain for practicing engineers, it does contain important and relevant information.  You want to be familiar with the legal issues in engineering management before you need to use that knowledge.

    Contract Management

    Engineers, project managers, and leaders are often involved in contract  negotiations and purchasing decisions.  It is important to recognize that legal terms and conditions in a contract may impact the delivery of equipment, quality of work, and project schedules.  Engineering managers should always be involved with contract negotiations, alongside the organization’s legal advisors, to ensure technical aspects of the agreement are justified and accurate.

    There are typically three stages in a purchasing agreement (EMBOK, Domain 10).

    1. Negotiation in which both parties clarify goals and reach agreement on the work to be done and reimbursement for that work;
    2. Formation wherein the legal documents and contracts are drafted, reviewed, and finalized; and
    3. Administration during which the vendor will provide the work and the buyer will ensure the work meets contractual obligations.

    Regulations:  Environmental and Human Resources

    Other legal areas in which engineers and engineering managers find themselves include environmental and human resources (HR).  Engineering must design and develop processes that meet all required environmental regulations within their city, county, region, state, and/or national jurisdictions.  These include compliance with laws that protect the air, water, and land.  It is a good corporate practice to meet US or international environmental standards even if the plant jurisdiction has no environmental regulations.  Most facilities have designated environmental specialists on staff and these personnel should be consulted when any question arises regarding design or operation of a facility with respect to discharges, waste, or raw material consumption.

    HR laws are complex and include arenas covering age, gender, and physical ability discrimination.  Engineering managers often are the go-betweens of staff and official HR departments.  Engineering managers must always maintain a professional demeanor and act in an ethical way.

    Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks

    Engineers are frequently the source of new ideas.  These ideas may lead to various forms of intellectual property protection.  Most countries have a version of patent law which protects the inventor, allowing exclusive and unhindered practice of the invention for a certain number of years.  Patents must be novel and non-obvious.  Authors of patents must directly contribute to the invention and one or more of it claims.  Patents are granted by the government of a single nation, but international agreements allow filing in several blocks of countries for an added fee.

    Copyrights are a weaker form of intellectual property protection and allow a creator to protect his or her work.  Copyrights apply to written works of art like books, music, and certain other art forms.  The life of a copyright usually extends beyond the life of the author.  (Copyright is usually indicated by the letter C in a circle.)

    Finally, trademarks are generally used by companies to protect their marketing collateral.  Logos and slogans are frequently trademarked.  For example, the Nike “swoosh” logo is quite famous and is protected by a trademark.  This means that no other sporting goods, shoe manufacturer, or clothing retailer can copy or mimic a “swoosh” on similar goods for sale in similar markets.

    Engineers and engineering managers are often asked to document the specific, technical claims in a patent.  In our writing, we must be aware of prior art and provide appropriate references of copyrighted materials.  And finally, we cannot use a logo or slogan without a proper trademark reference (given by the superscript “TM”). 


    Engineers, especially licensed professional engineers (PE), are bound by a code of ethics to follow the highest standards in their industry.  US and international bodies disseminate standards that are essentially best practice design procedures and policies.  For instance, in the State of Texas where I live, a building code requires all houses constructed after a certain date to have a non-porous floor in any room where water is present.  (Practically, this means you need a tile floor in the kitchen and bathroom.) 

    Similarly, ASEM offers standards of practice for engineering managers through the EMBOK.  Certification as a Certified Professional Engineering Manager (CPEM) demonstrates knowledge, experience, and mastery of the eleven domain areas.  Following these standards drives the highest level of performance for engineering managers.  Hiring a CPEM ensures the organization that an individual will practice the engineering management profession with a broad skills base and will behave ethically.

    How do you encounter legal issues in your job today as an engineer or engineering manager?

    About the Author

    Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP, is a passionate lifelong learner.  She enjoys helping individuals and companies accelerate their innovation programs.  In her free time, she loves scrapbooking.  You can learn more about Teresa and her new Innovation MasterMind group by connecting on LinkedIn
  • 16 Dec 2018 12:51 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Don Kennedy, President of The International Engineers Conference on Ethics. 

    Early in my career, the regulator of the Engineering profession in my area hosted an afternoon workshop on ethics.  There were about 400 people divided into groups of about 10.  They gave us topics to discuss.  I recall one question was "do Engineers owe a greater ehtical duty to the client or their employer?" In such a setting, people will often tend to say things they think they are supposed to say rather than what they honestly believe.  As it was, about 15 tables came to the conclusion that there was a greater duty toward the client and 25 said employer.  There was considerable debate and it struck me how each table became a tribe that supported their cause. That is, it defies random distribution that all the people at each table would hold similar views that are the opposite of the opposing tables. Each side defended their view. No concensus was reached that day.

    For the question asked at the workshop, it struck me as odd that there could be any discussion.  But if you take the perspective that somehow engineers are protectors of the public against the actions of management, you might think that the expected answer is that this would extend to protecting clients against your employer. For people who want to provide the expected answer they will think up reasons to support their quickly reached conclusion.

    However, the direct consequence of taking the stand that your loyalty is to outside groups is called acting in conflict of interest.  Conflict of interest is not ethical behavior, especially when you are being paid to act in the best interests of the side you working against. For a simple example, let us say your company is negotiating a contract that has an 80% margin.  The 15 tables are essentially arguing that it is the duty of an engineer to go to the client and tell them your employer could offer a 30% discount and still want the job.  The Kantian view of ethics implies that the correct action is the one that applies universally. 

    Even though we can all now (I hope) agree that ethics dictates that an engineer owes loyalty to their employer over customers, I would like to now mention a common occurrence I see from time to time.  If you have ever worked for a large organization, you will know that there are many times you might need contingent workers to provide help over a short time.  One of the easiest ways to meet this demand is to bring in contracted workers from a large Engineering services company.  The service providers are typically leery to send their people into another organization. The transplanted workers will often behave in a way that clearly shows they have shifted their loyalty to their host organization.  A big driver for this behavior is that the worker wants to jump over to be a permanent employee of their host.  It happens very often when we have sent people in only to hear a few months later than the workers sent to the client are now giving notice and joining the client organization.  Twenty years ago, there may have been damage to the professional reputation of the engineer that jumped, but today changing jobs is so ubiquitous that no one can keep track of all the places different people worked or why they left any of their jobs.

    The above situation highlights the real life ethical challenges that face engineers.  Most of the discussion on ethics involves illegal activity or issuing designs that cause catastrophic failure.  In a workshop, we can usually reach a consensus of what is ethical and what is not and people agree they would be ethical.  How many of us would not readily accept an increase in pay and stay working in the same office we are now in?  

    I have been in situations where I worked for an Engineering service provider and was seconded to a client who in turn seconded me to a competing service provider who in turn seconded me to another client. I recognized many urges to shift loyalties but I managed to remember who was paying me to be there. Being ethical is a personal choice that can create personal dilemmas. It is important for engineers to remember the responsibility they carry and where their loyalties lie.

    About the Author: Dr. Don Kennedy has been a regular attendee of the ASEM conference since 1999, with particularly good participation at the informal late evening "discussions" (sometimes making it difficult to get to the morning plenaries). He has spent much of his time working on large construction projects in remote areas, lecturing at a few universities, and is now trying his hand in an unfamiliar role as a director of engineering in R&D. Don Kennedy is the President of The International Engineers Conference on Ethics. 

  • 16 Dec 2018 12:06 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Alexis Devenin, MBA, PMP

    When we think of project success, we think in several variables. First of all, in the “Iron Triangle”, that means scope, time and cost. Additionally, we think of quality, sustainability, and safety. In each of these parameters, it’s expected that the project achieves a specified performance. If we think in a simple case in which all the parameters have the same importance, we can draw a spider chart with all the variables, setting the performance target as the 100%, and then draw the projected or actual performance, like in the next example:

    In the example, the project performs very good in scope and quality, fairly good in safety, regularly in time, unsatisfactory in sustainability and very poor in cost. The radial chart allows you to see the gaps between target and actual performance. Nevertheless, this is a neutral regard in which all the parameters have the same importance or weight in the evaluation. We have to realize that each stakeholder or group of stakeholders have different priorities and they value differently the importance of the variables in the project success.

    Consider a stakeholder for whom the most important parameter is cost. For this stakeholder, the cost performance has the double of importance than the performance of time, scope and other parameters. We can visualize that including a weighting factor in the cost variable in the radial chart. For this stakeholder, the success pattern has the following shape:

    You can see a very different success pattern shape than the previous equal weighted parameters chart. And you can notice that the performance of the project looks very much worst in this chart than in the first. Clearly, for this stakeholder, the project presents a very poor performance.

    Now consider a second stakeholder, one who is focused in scope and quality, probably the final user of the product of the project (for instance an operation’s manager in the case of the project consist in a production line). In this case, the project success pattern has the following shape:

    For this stakeholder, the performance of the project looks very good, and you can visualize that in the fact that the shape of the actual performance pattern “fits” very well in the success pattern shape.

    As a third case, consider a stakeholder concerned with safety and sustainability. For this stakeholder, the success pattern shape is the following:

    This stakeholder will judge the project performance as insufficient or unsatisfactory, and you can visualize that in the fact that the actual performance pattern presents large clearances into the success pattern shape.

    Now let’s look at the same time the three “success pattern shapes” associated with the three stakeholders:

    We are talking about the same project, with exactly the same performance, but here we have three very different success criteria and three very different evaluations of the achieved performance.

    I would like to invite you to do this exercise in your project. You can implement it in a spreadsheet or even you can do it on a piece of paper. While doing this exercise, you will have to reflect on your stakeholders’ priorities and values, and with the insight that you acquire, you will be better prepared to manage them, and you will know where to focus your work and resources to minimize the more valued performance gaps.

    About the Author: Alexis Devenin is a Mechanical Engineer with his MBA and PMP certification. He is an Engineering Project Manager with 20 years of experience in the Steel, Mining and Renewable Energy industries.

  • 16 Dec 2018 11:19 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    by Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP, NPDP

    In October, I had the pleasure of representing ASEM in the technical sessions, workshops, and vendor booth at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.  Trish Simo Kush and Patrick Kush first gave me a quick rundown on how to engage folks who stopped by the booth.  It was enlightening to see so many of my fellow ChEs interested in growing their careers with ASEM’s support in the EMBOK, certification, membership, and chapters.

    Perhaps the most interesting workshop at the conference was on the topic of unconscious bias, diversity, and inclusion.  The term “covering” was used to define when we conceal an important aspect of ourselves in order to respond to perceived fears or workplace threats.  We typically cover in four areas:  appearance, affiliation, advocacy, and/or association.  About 60% of all people “cover” in the workplace by changing or hiding characteristics within these four arenas.  One lady shared that she covered her affiliation by concealing that she had grown up very poor.  While many others viewed her story as one of resilience and perseverance, she expressed shame.

    And that is the lesson we can all learn about unconscious bias, diversity, and inclusion.  Our own perceptions – of ourselves and of others – can limit our ability as leaders.  We must work to build trust by communicating openly and honestly in the workplace.  An inclusive work environment leads to better talent acquisition and improved outcomes for the organization as a whole. 

    Another great session at the AIChE conference taught engineering and technology leaders that marketing is not bragging.  Each individual must understand his or her own values to craft a personal brand.  Our brand includes business and technical skills, soft skills, and our reputation.  We reflect our personal brand through social media, in presentations, and in our daily workplace conversations.  The take-away:  It’s okay to share our achievements as successful engineers and engineering managers.

    Yet another workshop built upon these themes by teaching that communication is at the core of successful project management and execution.  Projects are as much about people as they are about scope, schedule, and budget.  Learning to trust your team and to have them trust you as a leader is more important to successful project implementation than is creating a perfect Gantt chart.

    I also had the pleasure of attending AIChE’s Management Division’s award presentation to Gayle Gibson, retired from DuPont.  She, along with other panelists led by ASEM member, Harold Conner, described challenges in transforming organizations.  Communication, trust, and diversity also were webs throughout the panelists’ remarks.

    I want to thank ASEM for creating a presence within the AIChE community.  As a ChE and a CPEM, I may be biased, but I see significant opportunities for a mutually beneficial relationship to continue between the associations.  Based on booth attendance, we definitely should have more members with a ChE background joining us soon at ASEM!

  • 15 Dec 2018 4:47 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    Entrepreneurial You by Dorie Clark.  Harvard Business Review Press:  Boston, MA (2017).  254 pages.  US$28.00 (hard cover). 

    My home office is about three miles from my gym.  During the winter, when the sun sets early, I walk to the gym rather than ride my bike.  You just can’t trust that cars will see a cyclist!  Walking gives me 50 minutes a day to listen to podcasts or music.  I often listen to the Harvard Business Review’s podcast.

    A recent episode included an interview with Dorie Clark on the topic of portfolio careers.  I knew I had to read the book after listening raptly to stories of entrepreneurs diversifying their income streams.  And, “Entrepreneurial You” did not disappoint.

    “Entrepreneurial You” is a great book for engineering managers, professors, and anyone who works more than one job.  Some of us already own small businesses and can use Ms. Clark’s guidance to grow our influence while others can reference the book as they consider free-lancing or post-retirement careers.

    The first two chapters of “Entrepreneurial You” teach us to build our own brand.  Just like a product has an expected reliability, each person must establish himself or herself as a trusted expert in his or her own field.  “We have to find a way to build trust with the people in our audience and make them want to do business with us,” (pg. 19, emphasis added).

    Part Two of “Entrepreneurial You” offers tactical and operational guidance for entrepreneurs to build portfolio careers.  Chapter 4, for example, illustrates steps to become a coach or consultant.  Chapter 6 advises how to set up a podcast and monetize the activity.  Finally, Chapter 8 describes how many business people have set up exclusive events and conferences for specialized audiences to share and learn from one another.  So, even if you are not considering another gig, you can use the information from these chapters to enhance organizational communication.

    In Part Three, the author describes various online avenues to expanding one’s reach and influence.  To be honest, Chapter 11 on affiliate marketing makes me a bit uncomfortable, but the author assures us throughout the text that moving out of our comfort zone is a pathway to growth.  In this chapter and others, she emphasizes the importance of growing a mailing list (also important for any engineer working in sales or marketing).

    Ms. Clark concludes “Entrepreneurial You” in Chapter 12 with the advice to choose from the buffet of options in the book to construct a portfolio career that fits our own unique lifestyle.  For example, while growing my business is important to me, it’s also a priority for me to work out at the gym every day.  Understanding who you are, and your own strengths and weaknesses make you better suited to selecting appropriate, diversified income streams.

    I really enjoyed reading “Entrepreneurial You.”  You can listen to the HBR podcast here (about 20 minutes) to see if you want to invest another 5 or 6 hours reading the book.  My copy is highlighted and dogeared as I continue to review and revisit much of the information presented.  I highly recommend “Entrepreneurial You” for anyone who has embarked upon or plans to begin a free-lance, portfolio careers as an engineer, engineering manager, or consultant.

    What is your biggest challenge in managing multiple careers?

    Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, PE, PMP, CPEM, NPDP
    Global NP Solutions, LLC

  • 12 Dec 2018 5:07 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    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.

    Photo credit:

    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):

    • Concept
    • Development
    • Production
    • Utilization
    • Support
    • Retirement

    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.

  • 07 Dec 2018 6:21 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

    Dr. Kwasa’s research focuses on value-based systems engineering and multidisciplinary design optimization. Dr. Kwasa’s current research involves UAS design and applications, healthcare systems integration and organization design for large-scale complex engineered systems. Kwasa attained his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees from Iowa State University between 2008 and 2017. His B.Sc and Ph.D were earned in Aerospace Engineering while his M.Eng was earned in Systems Engineering. Originally from Kenya, Kwasa very much enjoys looking for ways to solve engineering problems by lessons learned from numerous life experiences growing up in a developing nation.

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