Introducing Systems Engineering

Systems engineering is not solely about technical engineering matters regarding a system or product.  Successful systems engineering alters the way an organization works and impacts the state of mind of the individuals within the organization towards systems engineering.  If handled incorrectly the introduction of systems engineering can place a number of strains and stresses on an organization.  These stresses and strains can come about as the processes needed for the systems engineering are introduced.

For the successful introduction of systems engineering it is important to have a vision of how systems engineering will support the organization and its projects.  The vision needs to be tempered so as not to get over ambitious.  The introduction should be tackled one bit at a time ensuring a layered approach to introducing systems engineering.

The vision for how systems engineering supports an organization will be shaped by a number of factors: how has engineering been done successfully in the past; how has engineering gone wrong in the past; what type of technology is the project delivering; and where the contractual boundaries are across the project’s and the system’s lifecycle.  If the organization has a good process for doing something, then do not change it for the sake of change.  Where there are problems with existing processes, study them very carefully rather than simply introducing systems engineering in the hope that it will solve the problems. Otherwise all that you may achieve is taking the blame for someone else’s previous errors. A ‘Big Bang’ approach to introducing systems engineering will most probably not work.

The type of technology that a project is to use to implement its solution should influence your vision for how systems engineering is going to support the project. A heavily software-based product is very likely to need a different approach from a solution that is largely a mechanical system.

The contractual boundaries will have an influence on your vision. While it is right for the systems engineers to consider the system from inception to retirement, often other organizations have significant involvement in the different phases of a system’s lifecycle. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to impose your vision outside your organization. The boundaries are best dealt with by acknowledging their existence and then providing simple but controllable means to enable the vision to cross the boundaries.

Where possible map the issues being solved by the introduction of systems engineering on to the facilities provided. For example, make use of the flexibility within the systems engineering tool once your new processes have been running for a while. In the initial stages of introducing systems engineering into an organization it is easy to get diverted into trying to please everyone. This can lead to effort and resources being diverted into adapting the tool unnecessarily. It may be better spend those resources on tackling the problems that the systems engineering was introduced to help solve. Initially make use of the standard documents and reports, etc., that the tool produces. Compromise with users of the reports about language and terminology. Once the documents have been in circulation for a while then revise them to capture the way users use them.

Systems engineering is not just about the adoption of new processes and technology to support those processes – it is also about changing people’s attitudes and the way they view their role within the organization. It can be easy to forget to include the systems engineering staff in your vision. They are the people on the frontline and if they are not informed and confident about the direction things are going then they cannot convince others. It is important to listen to their feedback and make changes if necessary. Doing this will help with staff motivation. Flexible, full-lifecycle, systems engineering tools need staff with the training and skill set to use them effectively. When setting up a systems engineering team it is advisable to have a set of systems engineering staff with a range of overlapping skills so there is redundancy in the skills that each member of the team brings with them. This will help provide continuity as the work load across the team varies through the phases of the project.

A coherent vision on the direction that the introduction that systems engineering should take will ensure that systems engineering is introduced effectively. A vision of where systems engineering will lead an organization is important to getting through the stresses and strains that the organization will be subjected to.

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