Systems Engineering for Adults

As Vitech celebrates its 25th anniversary, we are reminded that we stand at a pivotal point in our corporate development. Because we closely mirror the development of INCOSE (founded 27 years ago in 1990), we see the same kind of significant milestone in the growth and development of systems engineering. At such a milestone point, it is natural to look back on the path that has brought us here and, at the same time, look forward to the journey ahead. In last week’s blog post, Miriam Rich painted a portrait of one of our founders, the seminal thinker, Jim Long. A giant in the beginnings of the discipline, a founder of INCOSE and David Long’s actual parent, Jim gave us the “great start” that all good parents seek to provide. In this week’s post, Zane Scott calls our attention to a time for change. As a company, we must take the next step by building on our foundations to explore a wider world. As a profession, we must make the same transition. It is time to take our place as adults in the systems world.

There comes a time in life when it is appropriate to get up, thank your parents for a great start, and strike out on your own into the world. That moment is always fraught with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. The anxiety created by leaving the familiar and secure mixes with the anticipation of embracing exciting new opportunities created by the new freedom. There is comfort in the knowledge that we can return to our accustomed places, even if we will live there no more. But the overall mood is one of excitement tinged with fears of the unknown.

That time has come for systems engineering. It has grown up in the household of the military/aerospace industry. It has drawn its values and patterns of behavior from those beginnings. The influence of “home” has made its imprint on a profession nearing its full adulthood. But it is time to realize the potential of a fully developed discipline. It is time to look outside the familiar to find a new place in the community.

Systems engineers have an obligation to encourage their profession in emerging from its adolescence not to miss its potential. The prospect of change is always daunting, but change is crucial to growth and development. As the quote often attributed to W. Edwards Deming puts it, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Assuming that we want to survive and grow, we have to change.

How do we make that change? How do we overcome the inertia of the familiar? There are a number of preparatory steps we must take.

Stop looking solely for opportunities that resemble problems we have already solved. This way of thinking is called “reproductive.” It reproduces solutions in problems that are substantially similar to problems that we have already addressed. Reproductive thinking is the approach in use that leads to some limited expansion of the systems engineering space. In reproductive thinking, problems are solved by searching for answers among the analogous solutions to be found in our experience. Beyond that, one can look for problems based on their similarity to others that have been solved successfully. This is the step that has been taken by most efforts to expand the domain.

For example, when INCOSE identified healthcare as a field of opportunity, there were a fair number of systems engineers who interpreted that to mean the design and manufacture of medical devices. While there are legitimate opportunities in medical devices, the healthcare world holds a number of avenues for systems engineering beyond the mechanical/electrical/software aspects of medical devices. The opportunity for healthcare delivery process improvement is arguably a much bigger and more fertile field for systems engineering.

Looking for new opportunities using reproductive thinking can yield positive results. While it may be tempting to be dismissive about the incremental nature of advances garnered through this kind of thinking, there are tangible results to be had. It is this thinking that leads, for example, from military vehicles to the civilian transportation system. But it carries its own inherent limitations.

In the act of reproductive thinking, we ask the question “Who might use this (type of) solution (with reference to a specific solution—not to the broader systems engineering solutions)?” Because of the nature of this question and its answers, the outcome is, by definition, incremental. With it, we can push the boundary of our systems engineering practice a little at a time but we cannot expect major shifts.

So, the first step in overcoming our natural tendency to remain in the familiar is to move beyond reproductive thinking.

Return to first principles. The way to get beyond incrementalism and into position to make significant expansions is to focus on the “first principles” of the discipline. By truly understanding concepts like systems, relationships, and emergence, we can begin to expand the horizon for the possibilities of our practice. This means reaching out to the related systems disciplines—systems thinking, systems science, systems dynamics—in order to develop a well-rounded understanding of the place of systems in understanding problems and crafting solutions.

Most of the thinking around systems engineering occurs in terms of identified processes. Ask a systems engineer what “systems engineering” is and most often you will quickly get a compilation of practices. Rather than focusing on the principles behind the processes, the discussion centers on the application of standard processes to familiar problems. This strengthens the tendency to reproduce solutions that have been proven in similar circumstances. It is only by returning to first principles that we can break out of the reproductive thinking limitations.

Think in terms of concepts not solutions. If systems engineering wants to expand into a broader market, it must learn to see itself at the conceptual level. “Systems engineering practice is only weakly connected to the underlying theoretical foundation, and educational programs focus on practice with little emphasis on underlying theory.” (SE Vision 2025 p. 40). To expand our reach, we must strengthen our connection to the more general nature of our theoretical foundation.

This thinking is called “productive.” It stretches the application of systems engineering to problems susceptible to solution using concepts regardless of their history as the subject of system engineering. The key is the focus on principles and concepts. With a solid understanding of those principles, we can move deductively to specific applications. If we don’t understand the underlying concepts or, worse, fail to use our understanding to get beyond the mere repetition of processes in predefined settings, we are restricted to a crowded and, arguably, shrinking opportunity space.

Learn the language(s) of the land of opportunity. The “mil/aero” beginnings of systems engineering have stamped it with two related features—processes and language. Just as the process orientation acts as a limitation on our thinking, so too does language limit our ability to transfer the concepts and solutions to stakeholders who reside outside the traditional boundaries of systems engineering. Stakeholders accustomed to tackling their problems using process engineering approaches like Lean Six Sigma and Total Quality Management will be unable to translate a jargon-ridden barrage of acronyms with their origins in the world of aerospace engineering. Likewise, they will bewildered by a set of diagrams rooted in software development. Despite this reality, we push on toward “standardizing” on such language and representations blissfully assuming that because we are so familiar with them, they are suitable norms for the rest of the world. But if we want to avail ourselves of opportunities outside of our traditional spaces, we must disabuse ourselves of those misconceptions.

It is of little use to expand our thinking if we are insistent on sharing it in terms that cannot communicate with broader audiences. For example, it doesn’t help that ancient Greek has six different words (eros, philia, ludus, agape, pragma, philautia) for the different kinds of love, if the hearer doesn’t know Greek. Though those six words can convey the nuances of types of love that would take the English language paragraphs to explain, those nuances are lost on those without an “inside” knowledge of the Greek roots. We need to learn the language(s) of the stakeholders who occupy the spaces into which we seek to move. Otherwise our jargon is, and will be, Greek to them.

If we want systems engineering to have its greatest possible impact on the world of problem-solving and at the same time create the greatest scope of opportunity for systems engineers, it should be clear that we must look beyond our traditional spaces, become comfortable with the underlying principles of our approach, think of problems in terms of those concepts, and adjust our language to communicate with a broader audience. That can be challenging and even a little unsettling. But to do any less is limiting. It’s time to grow up.

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