Category Archives: Systems Engineering

Systems Thinking For Innovation

Firms that compete through technology based innovation strategy need to contend with how their product/service delivers value in rapidly evolving complex systems present in today’s markets. Complexity has reached the point were we now talk in terms of system of systems to describe markets.  For example, electric vehicles operating within an electrical power generation and smart grid system, advanced aircraft operating within an air traffic management system, a swipe card payment system for an integrated public transportation system, or a medical device operating connected within an electronic records management in an integrated health services system.

Firms need better systems thinking in their strategic and tactical delivery actions. The success of the firm depend on external partners, integration challenges, customer adoption, and market conditions beyond their control. Firms that apply systems thinking  can help to maximize the return on innovation investment that drives profitability, growth, and competitiveness. Engineering leaders responsible for delivering technology solutions in complex systems markets also need to develop their staff the think in terms of systems, adopt systems engineering practices, and apply better strategic tools to leverage systems thinking.


To understand systems thinking firms need to understand complex systems. A system is a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole.  Individual systems from the examples given could include: an electric vehicle itself; a payment system; a medical device; mobile phone; or tablet. Each alone can be complex systems in their own right. The system of systems takes a wider view of all the individual systems that must operate together in the broader context. Annette Krygiel defined systems of systems as “an interoperating collection of component systems that produce results unachievable by the individual systems alone“. For example, the electric vehicle market comprises systems such as: the electric vehicle itself; electrical power grid; charging stations; electrical power generation/transmission system; and the environmental regulatory system. All of these systems in the electrical transportation system of systems are undergoing rapid transformation but provide exciting potential for innovators active in this space.

Complex systems markets are changing rapidly making it difficult for engineers to predict how their potentially novel products/services will perform in the future system. In today’s markets complex systems perform beyond the sum of the parts and often in unexpected ways with emergent properties. How future technology users will face pervasive connectivity with the evolving ‘Internet of Things’ is an excellent example. The Royal Academy of Engineering observed that “A system is a set of parts which, when combined, have qualities that are not present in any of the parts themselves. Those qualities are the emergent properties of the system. Engineers are increasingly concerned with complex systems, in which the parts interact with each other and with the outside world in many ways – the relationship between the parts determine how the system behaves. Intuition rarely predicts the behaviour of novel complex systems. Their design has to iterate to converge on an acceptable solution. That solution might not be what the customer originally envisaged – aligning expectations with what is achievable is an important part of the design of systems and the design engineer has to work closely with the customer and other stakeholders.”

Engineers also need to ensure system outcomes such as: safety; reliability; robustness; interoperability; versatility; flexibility; and future growth are delivered in complex system markets. In terms of tactical actions, systems engineering is the field of engineering that according to INCOSE (the international professional body for systems engineering) aims to enable the realization of successful systems as defined by these intended outcomes. Eisner defines systems engineering as “an iterative process of top-down synthesis, development, and operation of a real-world system that satisfies, in a near optimal manner, the full range of requirements for the system“. Systems engineering is about managing reality, complexity, uncertainty, and increasingly innovation within budget, schedule and other project specific outcomes. ISO 15288 is the recognized standard for the systems engineering. In fact project management and systems engineering are becoming increasingly integrated as evidenced by the closer cooperation between PMI and INCOSE.

Formal systems engineering methods are described in INCOSE’s Systems Engineering Handbook employing processes, methods, and tools have evolved since the end of WWII to apply systems thinking initially in complex cold war military systems.  Firms in aerospace, defence, nuclear, and transportation regularly use systems engineering to manage complexity, safety, interoperability, and performance but as the world becomes more connected other industries need to learn and adopt these methods. It has only been recently though that other industries have become exposed to systems engineering methods.  Some industries have been more proactive than others but some like construction are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with complex infrastructure projects that involve novel technologies and system of systems. Unfortunately there has been limited talent transfer from the traditional systems industries in many jurisdictions, non-system industries adoption has been slow if there is little need to connect, some see the methods as too costly or difficult to apply. Most university engineering and management programs do not cover systems engineering leaving industry to learn and often relearn lessons in siloes. So stand alone industries need to consider whether they need systems engineering to deliver their value proposition in an increasingly connected and complex world.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking or ‘big-picture’ thinking, is the key systems engineering mindset that takes a holistic view of the system, its environment, its users, its stakeholders, over its life time. Peter Senge defined systems thinking in The Fifth Discipline to be ” a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather then static snapshots. It is a set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering and management“. INCOSE UK define systems thinking to be “a way of thinking used to address complex and uncertain real world problems. It recognizes that the world is a set of highly interconnected technical and social entities which are hierarchically organized producing emergent behaviour“.

Most engineers are functional experts but as they assume greater leadership responsibility they often have to consider design implications in a broader context and begin to recognize the importance of systems thinking. Functional point designs without consideration for the broader system often lead to inferior outcomes. Engineering leaders in industries that are becoming more complex systems of systems therefore need to develop in themselves and in succession plans how to be better systems thinkers.

To ensure present day firms develop and sustain their competitiveness in the face of an increasingly complex world, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering suggests six principles that firms who leverage engineering capabilities should adopt to apply systems thinking:

  • Debate, define, revise, and pursue the purpose;
  • Think holistic;
  • Follow a systematic procedure;
  • Be creative;
  • Take account of the people;
  • Manage the project and the relationships.

A prior post looked at methods to sustain system thinking as the baby boomer generation retire in the traditional system thinking industries.

At the strategic level how can engineering leaders deliver returns from innovation investments in applying systems thinking?

Innovating in Complex Systems Markets

Rod Adner provided a powerful strategic approach for innovating systems in his book The Wide Lens by putting systems thinking in a business context and a form more usable by industry. Adner’s method looks beyond the execution of the firm’s innovation to consider co-innovation players and the adoption chain in the complex system market.  Co-innovation players are those firms or entities that need to innovate in order for the firm’s innovation to succeed. The adoption chain considers who else needs to adopt the firm’s innovation before full value can be achieved. Adner’s wide-lens steps are:

  1. Build a value blue print that illustrates the complex system market by network mapping of the key suppliers, intermediaries, complementors all leading to the end customer;
  2. Prepare a leaders/followers diagram to illustrate who of the players in the value blue print wins (or benefits) and who loses (and could resist) the firm’s innovation;
  3. Map first mover matrix to understand if being a first mover is an advantage or not;
  4. Considering the 5 levers of complex system market reconfiguration (ie. changes to the value blue print) to facilitate value creation by the firm’s innovation: what can be separated?; what can be combined? what can be relocated? what can be added? and what can be subtracted?
  5. Taking steps to sequence successful complex system market construction through such strategic actions as: minimum viable footprint; staged expansion; and system carryover.

By visualizing the complex system market using Adner’s approach engineering leaders can apply systems thinking that drives profitability, growth, and competitiveness.

Sustaining Systems Thinking in Engineering Teams

Engineering leaders are increasingly concerned about sustaining engineering competency and experience as the baby boomer generation begins to retire taking with it a tremendous volume of knowledge and experience. Complex system based industries such as aerospace and defence, automotive, and shipbuilding are particularly susceptible to the loss of systems engineering competencies gained from a long sequence of increasingly advanced projects delivered between the 1960s to the present day.

A PhD thesis by Caroline Lamb Collaborative Systems Thinking: An exploration of the mechanisms enabling team systems thinking explored how engineering teams approach systems thinking in aerospace systems development.  Motivated by the greying of aerospace engineers in America this study provides a very comprehensive view of how systems thinking can be sustained in the long run following a loss of corporate knowledge (ie. from baby boomer retirements, corporate restructuring, etc).

Although specific to aerospace this research provides some very useful generalized approaches to establish, sustain, and improve engineering teams engaged in complex systems development. This research complements views on teamwork, innovation, and creativity when applied to complex systems.

Collaborative Systems Thinking

Lamb defined collaborative systems thinking as ‘big picture‘ thinking and a necessary skill for complex systems design coupling the analytical side of engineering design with the creative side of engineering design that ensures the final product delivers the desired functionality. In this research the term ‘collaborative systems thinking’ is used to differentiate between systems thinking within teams and systems thinking performed by individual engineers. This differentiation is useful in a generalized context where most would agree today that teamwork is the favoured organizational effectiveness work model.

Generalized Traits of Collaborative Systems Thinking Teams

Lamb reports that generalized traits of collaborative systems thinking teams. Collaborative systems thinking teams:

  1. Engage in more consensus decision making.
  2. Require a team structure with three categories of membership: systems leadership (strong systems thinkers who balance technical and social interactions of the team); technical translators (act as interface between system leadership and functional experts); and functional experts (bring specialized technical knowledge to the team).
  3. Prefer communication by real-time group interactions.
  4. Possess team members who have a higher number of past and concurrent (optimal maximum of three) project experience.
  5. Prefer supportive team environment with enablers of trust, shared understanding of team purpose, and engaging in good discussions that stimulate good ideas.
  6. Have more creative work environments with high decision freedom.
  7. Require both technical and social leadership.
  8. Conceptual design teams are more likely to engage in collaborative systems thinking.

Traits that were not found to have a strong influence on collaborative systems thinking included: team size, collocation, customer base (ie. military vs commercial), measures of technical process use or tailoring, and individual systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Heuristics

Lamb captured a number of heuristics that describe collaborative systems thinking team behaviours. Collaborate systems thinking teams:

  1. Concentrate on the system: “Collaborative systems thinking teams concentrate on the system, on finding an elegant solution. Requirements are secondary to that design. Teams engage in systems thinking when the individuals are genuinely interested and engaged in the task. Fundamentally, the solution comes not when we are concentrating on the constraints, but when we become engrossed with the problems at hand.”
  2. Communicate effectively for the context: “Clear communication is critical to collaborative systems thinking. Teams tend to over use email and other IT tools. Sometimes you just need to walk around and speak with others. After all, you can’t delete a walk-in.”
  3. Ask lots of questions: “The asking and answering of questions brings both parties to new realizations. It helps teams and individuals identify built-in assumptions and move away from what we’ve always done. A team needs the leader to ask the right questions; an individual who is curious, imaginative, knowledgeable, and can help others look at the problem from outside of the box.”
  4. Good process execution needs both standardization and innovation: “Many people are comfortable following guidelines and rules, but process can become brittle. Teams require a balance of individuals that follow the letter of the law and individuals who follow the ‘spirit’ of rules; who reframe problems to get around rules. This is how we innovate and improve.”

  5. Both experience and analysis are important: “In a team setting there must be a balance between experience and analysis. Experience feeds the team’s intuition and frames how each new problem is faced. However, in innovative situations intuition can be a liability, and teams must use tools to find new knowledge and overcome the inertia of past experience.”

  6. History tends to repeat itself: “Engineering mistakes repeat every 7-10 years. This is the time it takes for critical people to rotate off a program and for important knowledge to be lost and rediscovered through failure. Successful programs have a line of succession: a continuity of knowledge through awareness of the past, present, and future. When this continuity is broken is when teams are doomed to repeat failures of the past.”

  7. Engineers are unique individuals: “Team members, especially the smart and innovative, come with ‘warts.’ Team leaders cannot tolerate disruptive behavior, but need to treat each person individually to get their best work and to help them become better engineers and team members.”


This research provides useful guidelines to assist engineering leaders create the best environment for engineering teams involved in the ‘fuzzy front end’ of product development where uncertainty is high. The research is perhaps less relevant to later execution engineering work.

The research also provides some key insight into team structure and make-up. To sustain systems thinking firms should keep teams formed over the long term to build experience even though individuals may leave or join the group and the team may be assigned to new projects.  The research suggests that to sustain systems thinking a great deal of attention needs to be paid to developing engineering leaders with the combination of technical and social skills to deliver integrated systems.

Social media has some interesting implications on future team based engineering particular where it enables real-time communication if team members are not co-located.

Effective Technical Risk Assessments In New Product Development

Technical risks are a common cause of new product development project cost and schedule overruns. Effective technical risk assessment is therefore on the mind of investment decision makers and all new product development project managers.

Effective Technical Risk Assessment

To be effective, technical risk assessment must be performed up front so that investment decision makers can clearly weight the risk/reward of continuing while enabling product developers to plan the realistic scope of effort along with tackling the biggest technical mitigation efforts immediately.

A technical risk assessment is typically based on lessons learned from previous new product development projects, experience of team members or advisors, and historical data from similar products developed either by the company or competitors. A project pre-mortem  is an effective tactic to identify ‘project killer’ issues up-front to ensure project team members and stakeholders are not feeling pressured to express their views.

Technical risk assessments should cover the feasibility of the product including building blocks (particularly mix of existing/new), how the product building blocks integrate amongst themselves, how the product integrates with the operating environment, ability to manufacture the product cost effectively, and feasibility of new manufacturing technologies.

A central theme in any technical risk assessment therefore is that new product development outcomes depend on the maturity of the underlying hardware, software, and integrated system. A key question facing new product developers then is: How can technology maturity be measured to determine the level of technical risk? 

Technology Maturity Assessment

Good technical risk assessments depend on an effective technology maturity assessment.  The percentage of unproven technology and level of integration in the new product determines the degree of technical risk that can impact project cost, schedule, and quality.

The technology readiness level scale provides a means to assess the maturity of the subsystem building blocks in a new system. First developed by NASA as illustrated below the Technology Readiness Level scale uses nine levels as described.


The NASA TRL scale illustrated is for products used in space but the scale can be easily adapted for any operating environments for which the new product is intended.  The assessment scale is also used by the US DoD and has been adopted by the Canadian government for use in the Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program.

Product developers should deconstruct their product building blocks and assess the technology maturity level of the individual building blocks using the technology readiness levels.  Product developers need to assess whether technology proposed is ready to be used in their project. Typically subsystems should not be used unless demonstrated at TRL 7 or higher. Subsystems with TRL below 7 are really research projects presenting too much uncertainty for accurate customer schedule commitments. R&D projects can use the TRL scale to measure progress towards commercialization. Product portfolio strategies and roadmaps need to plan how new technology subsystem R&D projects will be coordinated, prioritized, and sequenced with sufficient time to reach TRL 7.

Integrated System Maturity Assessments

Product developers should also assess the technology maturity level of the integrated system. Integration problems can be as serious as individual subsystem immaturity issues if not more when the scope of the new product/project is large and often go unrecognized until well into new product development project.

The level of complexity of the integrated system drives the scope of the system level maturity assessment. The TRL scale is not very effective as system complexity increases. It is also important to recognize that complex integration can be present in both new systems (new systems with existing and new subsystems) where we would expect them but also legacy system upgrading (old systems being upgraded with new subsystems).  Limitations with the technology readiness level scale reported for major/complex projects include:

  • Emphasis on subsystems;
  • Nonlinearity of the scale particularly the large leap from TRL 6 to 7;
  • Not accounting for system integration and manufacturing; and
  • Does not indicate the degree of risk of moving up the scale.

The Risk Identification, Integration, and Ilities (RI3) approach has been proposed to  augment the technology readiness level system for manufacturing readiness and systems engineering ‘ilities’ . Another approach to assess the system level readiness is the UK MoD System Readiness Level method. The advancement degree of difficulty (AD2) method has been proposed to address the degree of risk of moving up the scale.  The cost effectiveness of applying these approaches depend on the complexity of the integrated system and size of the new product development project.

Product developers need to apply a disciplined technology maturity assessment early in any new product development project to proactively mitigate technical risks. Investment decision makers should consider impartial technical feasibility assessments based on subsystem and system technology readiness levels described in this post to remove bias from technology maturity assessments.

Managing Complexity Through System Engineering

In an increasingly complex world the relevance of systems engineering to the broader profession of engineering is growing.

Importance of Systems Engineering Today

Ensuring the safety of the public is becoming more difficult as we put more trust in devices we use in our daily lives that are integrated with smart technologies and automation. Complex systems can have failure modes that are difficult to fully identify and understand during design and complex systems can be used in ways not envisioned when a solution is first conceived.

Systems engineering provides a structured approach to address safety concerns and protect the public when designing complex systems. The UK Royal Academy of Engineering drew attention to the growing importance of system engineering to society and solving today’s difficult problems in report entitled Creating Systems That Work: Principles of Engineering Systems for the 21st Century. Systems engineering is a poorly understood discipline in most industries and few engineers are skilled in its application beyond aerospace, defence, nuclear, and transportation. 

What is Systems Engineering

Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field integrating the contribution of diverse technical disciplines that collaborate to realize a successful system . ‘Integration‘ is the key element. The RAE capture the essence of system engineering well in that:

engineering uses technology to build the systems that meet our needs – energy, transport, food, health, entertainment and the rest. Those systems must work: do what they should and not do what they should not, do it on time and within budget, do it safely and reliably. These do not happen by chance; they happen by design.” RAE, 2007

The RAE report also captures well why it is not obvious that systems engineering is key success factor in many complex solutions because:

customers rarely want a system. What they want is a capability to fulfil effectively a business objective. The system…is usually only part of the means to deliver the capability…Engineers are responsible for identifying with the customer the capability that is really needed and expressing it as a system that can be built and is affordable.” RAE, 2007

The 30 page RAE report gives an appreciation for the principles underlying systems engineering and the growing importance of systems engineering today.

Origins of Systems Engineering

British UGM-27 Polaris missile on display at I...

British UGM-27 Polaris missile on display at Imperial War Museum London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Systems engineering methods emerged following the second world war as the complexity of programs and technology increased rapidly.  Systems engineering developed in conjunction with project management and risk management but is often not as well publicized. Notable systems engineering examples include the Polaris missile system, nuclear submarines, Apollo, and early jet airliners.

Although systems engineering was first applied to military systems development this was soon followed by transportation systems, major construction and infrastructure programs. Engineers who have worked in these industries have typically been exposed to systems engineering approaches and methods more so than other industries.

Today the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) is a not-for-profit organization that develops and disseminated practices that realize successful systems.

Systems Engineering Process

The fundamental concept underlying systems engineering is that to manage complexity a system can be broken down into smaller parts, building blocks, or modules so that it can be more easily defined, understood, and designed. This is referred to as ‘chunking’ or ‘divide and conquer’.  Once defined and understood at the building block level the smaller parts are then integrated together in a disciplined way to construct the system. 

The ‘V-Diagram’ illustrates this core systems engineering process. The left side of V-Diagram illustrates the ‘chunking’ stages and the right side the ‘integration’ stages. All systems engineering methods support the implementation of the steps illustrated in the V-Diagram.

V Diagram

RAE, 2007

Systems Safety Assurance

Complex systems safety assurance best practice has evolved in parallel with systems engineering. Systems safety emerged as a sub-discipline of systems engineering as designers pushed the envelope of complex system design with numerous resulting tragic accidents. System safety requirements for military system were specified by MIL-STD-882 which mandated a comprehensive risk assessment and management approach. Numerous versions of these same principles have evolved since that time in the commercial aviation, nuclear, and transportation industries and countries. A thorough review of systems safety assurance can be found in Nancy Leveson’s book Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety.

Serious consideration should be given to applying systems engineering when the scope of a system extends beyond the expertise of one or several engineering disciplines or the consequences of system failure on public safety can’t be fully predicted and controlled during design.