Systems engineering was born in the aerospace industry from the need to coordinate the technical complexities of large, multi-national programs. The principles and practices of the discipline gained widespread recognition and systems engineering became a fundamental component of all programs in the aerospace industry in the second half of the 20th century.
These principles and practices of systems engineering has been attracting attention at commercial companies in the past decade. Most of these companies agree that they do not need the level of complexity of systems engineering utilized by the aerospace industry and attempt to define a model that would work in their organizations. I led a similar initiative at a company which develops and manufactures laboratory instruments that are primarily used in the pharmaceutical companies.
The mandate of the initiative was as to improve the quality and discipline of product development through implementation of systems engineering practices and principles. Main pain points in the organization were as follows:
- Interactions between Marketing, Research, engineering and manufacturing were disfunctional,
- Engineering typically did not know which features were critical for the success of the product,
- Documentation of products was minimal and, mostly, unusable,
- The products were complex. Interactions within a product’s subsystems were not understood, making lower-level testing impossible.
We took the following steps to implement a systems-based product development structure in the organization:
- Understand the Organizational Goals and Define an Appropriate Solution
This is the most difficult but crucial step before jumping into “action.” We took the time to interview stakeholders, from senior executives to those in product development, to fully understand how the organization operated and where it wanted to go. This step helped with engaging relevant parties early to contribute to the definition of the solution and build up support for the initiative.
This is the step where the magnitude and scope of the initiative is clarified. In order to implement a truly systemic product development capability, it is necessary to address organizational and management structures, skills in the organization and those outside it, tools used in development and product development strategy of the organization. In this initiative, we chose “go big, think fast, act quickly” approach.
The biggest challenge at this stage is to overcome the desire to do something quickly and show quick results to the sponsors of the program. Therefore, frequent and clear communication, is crucial at this early stage of the initiative.
- Choose and Engage Partners
Once the desired end-result was defined and the path to it was planned, we sought help for specific areas of the implementation. For example, we decided to engage an outside company for the training program, which was going to target over 200 people in the organization. Similarly, we decided to bring in various systems engineering software tools and engaged the selected vendor at the start of the initiative.
The value of engaging partners early in the initiative is very high. First, they have seen similar implementations at other places and can contribute to your program with suggestions and comments. Second, they know their tools and materials and can help you tailor your implementation to best utilize their products.
Our program significantly benefited from the early engagement of partners. For example, our tool implementation went without a glitch and acceptance among users was almost instantaneous. Quite an achievement for a enterprise-level software implementation.
- Pilot Program
Any large implementation, however well thought out, will stumble on a few unexpected issues. It is best to detect and correct them on a pilot project. For this implementation, we chose two projects: a software-only project and a hardware/software development project. We provided just-in-time training to the pilot project teams and instructed them to apply the systems practices in their projects.
The pilot projects provided valuable feedback to the implementation team. Without the pilot projects, the success of the implementation would have been significantly reduced and probably could have led to a failure. Some great ideas came out of the pilot program which were implemented. Some other complaints were addressed through training and tool improvements.
- Deployment and Training
Deployment of the new practices and principles was done in the following way:
- Projects that were beyond a certain phase were allowed to continue with previous methodologies. These project teams were included in the basic training program and most chose to adapt some of the newly introduced practices.
- All other projects were instructed to switch over to a systems-based methodology. Each project team received extensive training in the basics of the new methodologies as well as a tailored training to help with the switch. Project managers were asked to evaluate the impact, if any, of the switch and update their project plans accordingly.
- Support and Improvements
The end of the implementation initiative is the start of a new stage in the organization. The final task of the implementation team was to identify an “owner” to the deliverables of the initiative, i.e., processes, tools and the training program. This owner was the single point of contact to provide support and training as required. Additionally, the owner was responsible for collecting feedback from project teams and improving the processes, tools and the training program accordingly.
This results of this initiative stood the test of time and has been in a continuous improvement stage since its completion in 2007. The practice continued to grow and renew itself as the organization grew through acquisitions, moved its manufacturing to overseas, and the staff in the organization moved in and out of the organization.
I hope you find this article helpful. I welcome your comments and feedback. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.