Monday, August 31, 2009

Looking Ahead to 2020

Real-world practitioners of systems engineering/engineering systems describe how the young discipline has shaped their very large enterprises.

For the past 10 years, David Lehman has been incorporating key systems engineering ideas within MITRE Corporation. Successes include getting project leaders to think about engineering solutions in the context of political and economic organization, and learning how to communicate these solutions better. MITRE has talked to defense acquisition managers in the field to extract data and create models that get disseminated to other managers. But Lehman is disappointed that Defense Department acquisition methods are still large-scale, and unresponsive to swiftly changing situations. He’d like to show program managers how “to step outside what they’ve been taught,” and create incentives for doing the right things rather than “sticking with regulations.”

Robert Skinner, Jr. wonders if engineering systems approaches can help with some pressing questions: the way to mix transportation and land use decisions in urban areas, for instance, or government pricing strategies for surface transport. One nettlesome issue involves the right scope of analysis, says Skinner. Should researchers be looking at the components of the transportation system, or the whole enterprise? “As we move downward, uncertainty increases and the role of social systems and social science enters into it; politics upper and lower case becomes more significant.” And he adds, “We’re sorely lacking in analogs in the policy world to transmit complex engineering concepts. If analysis gets too far out ahead of the public’s and decision-makers’ ability to absorb it, it all comes to naught.”

“Why are so many complex systems behind schedule and over budget?” asks Heinz Stoewer. A single line of code missing can cause system collapse, says Stoewer. And big problems can flow from human shortcomings in calculations, accounting or risk management. Stoewer believes another reason for failure is that program managers and systems engineers “are too process focused,” and not well enough aligned. They may lack sufficient depth in the key discipline of their projects, leading to faulty product design or production. To improve the chances of success, Stoewer emphasizes the importance of early phases: “I can tell you two dozen programs in trouble because they’re…making enormous efforts trying to get things right when they’re almost done.”

By 2020, Joel Moses hopes that engineering systems will be recognized “as having made significant contributions” to health care, energy, environment, financial services and the military. To achieve such an impact, the field should focus on “maybe the key issue” of system architecture. Each engineering field thinks of architecture in different ways and groups must communicate better with each other. Moses believes educators should teach “what makes for a good system architect,” and that “systems thinking is important, but not enough.” A good system architect sees things holistically. Moses notes as well, “the difference between designing a one-off versus a family of systems.”

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