Getting Off to a Good Start with MBSE

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”  Stephen Covey

The move to model-based systems engineering (MBSE) is not an instantaneous transformation. Instead of one big bang, it is an intentional journey to transforming your systems engineering practice. As with any journey of significance, it depends upon getting off to a good start. In order to help with that start, this blog explores what is needed to make the journey a successful one.

Your journey begins with choosing a destination. From there, you need a map of best practices and advice for the road. You should include a list of some of the risks and pitfalls that experience shows you may wish to avoid along the way. This will help make the journey a safe one. Finally, you should consider some of the rewards you can reasonably expect from your successful MBSE journey to your chosen destination. While this is far from a comprehensive packing list, it will give you an idea of some of the things you should know as you embark on this rewarding journey.

Decide where you are going
We have all heard the old saw “begin with the end in mind.” Despite its overuse, it captures perfectly the critical need for beginning the MBSE journey. Every transformation to MBSE is unique to the organization that undertakes it. This uniqueness begins with understanding your organization and its culture. In order to make the journey your own, you must begin by defining the questions you seek to answer, the problems you want to solve.

Never forget that MBSE should be your servant on the road to engineering the systems you are designing or improving. Keep your needs in mind and don’t fall into the temptation to adopt the latest shiny thing in the form of tools or standards. What you choose to do and the road you choose to take should be tailored to supporting your systems engineering, to making your work of delivering value to your clients and stakeholders more effective and efficient. Begin by casting your vision for how that needs to happen. Only then can you move to making it real. Only then will “your” MBSE be fit for “your” purposes.

Are you trying to get a better handle on the complexity of the problems and solutions that you are working with? Do you want to improve the quality of your solutions? Perhaps you want to accelerate your time to market. You may wish to provide your solutions more cost effectively. Any and all of these are the potential results of transforming your practice with MBSE. But choose from the outset the particular one(s) you need so that you can make the journey your own.

Pack a proven map to guide you
While the journey is your own and should be tailored to get you to your chosen destination, the route is well-traveled and mapped by others who have gone before you. It is wise to consider their experiences with best practices and strategies for arriving safely and on time. Let’s look at a few of the best practices that we would recommend.

Once you have begun by identifying the problems you are trying to solve with the MBSE transformation, it is wise to remember that you should move from defining your purposes to adopting your process and then to choosing your tool(s). This order is critical to your decision process because your tools should support your processes and your processes should accomplish your purposes. It is important to understand this hierarchy and not to give in to the temptation to think that adopting a particular tool (or standard) will get you to the MBSE that will meet your needs. Identifying a tool before crafting your processes will make the tool the master of the processes and interfere with your ability to tailor them to accomplish your purposes. To quote another old saw, this is the MBSE version of the tail wagging the dog.

Be sure to gather the right team for the transformation. Identify a business champion to provide the organizational support that you will need to make the journey. Often this champion will own (and want solved) the problem that forms your purpose. Add to that a team of MBSE practitioners dedicated to a successful journey. These may be recruited from those interested and willing to be trained to make the journey. And don’t forget the supporting cast of stakeholders—managers, subject matter experts, discipline engineers, technicians, etc.—who need to understand what is going on and how it can help them.

Emphasize good engineering and good management support throughout your implementation of MBSE. It will matter little how robust your tools or slick your processes are if you underpin them with substandard engineering or management practices. Engineering and management are the materials which your MBSE practice will use to produce your results. As with most things in life, poor quality materials will result in poor quality results.

You may have noticed that engineering your journey to MBSE is an exercise in sound systems engineering. You begin by understanding your problem. You decide what you need to do before you choose how to do it. You resist the temptation to jump to implementation before you have mapped out the process by which you will meet your needs. (To learn more about this, click here.)

Watch out for pitfalls and dangers
Just as “Bridge Out Ahead” and “Watch for Fallen Rocks” roadside signs warn of hazards ahead, there are some signs to heed on the way to MBSE success. Ignoring these hazards can be just as journey-ending as a missing bridge or a large rock lurking just around the next curve. Let’s turn now to some of the “sign-worthy” hazards of the MBSE journey.

Starting too big or too small can be fatal to your MBSE effort. If you begin the journey by trying to tackle an “enterprise-wide” implementation, you will almost surely be doomed to failure. The larger the scale of change, the more likely that it will trigger an organizational “immune response” to resist it. Forgetting that implementing MBSE is not just a matter of tooling but includes people, technology and culture in its changes to the organization’s thinking (another hazard on its own), can lead to the temptation to just “implement a tool change” on a broad scale. This will create the double-edged problem of organizational resistance combined with inattention to the remaining aspects (people and culture), dooming the MBSE effort.

Equally hazardous is the “toy” project implementation that, because of its overly-limited scope will not provide sufficient evidence of the efficacy of the next steps in a broader implementation. The better idea is to implement a series of intentional, sequenced pilots leading step-by-step to a broader acceptance and implementation.

Going it alone can also prove hazardous to your success on the MBSE journey. It is far wiser to seek the advice of skilled, experienced mentors for the effort. Just as a knowledgeable tour guide can enrich and protect the aims of a physical journey, the way to MBSE transformation can be smoothed by obtaining the services of experienced practitioners to prepare and assist you along the path.

The rewards
The well-prepared and well-executed journey to MBSE is richly rewarding. It yields the capacity to produce clear and unambiguous models of your solutions. It gives you the ability to align on those models for better communication with your team and stakeholders. It gives you the power to connect to analytical and discipline engineering. It makes it possible to build the digital thread across the solution lifecycle. It takes your good engineering and makes it more powerful.

We have only scratched the surface here—there is much more to know. If you are interested in learning more about the journey, its rewards and how MBSE might help you, we would be most happy to assist you. If you are beginning an MBSE journey of your own, we can provide you with the guidance and mentoring to help make it a successful one. We look forward to hearing from you! (You can contact me at

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