Systems Engineering: Path to Sustainable Innovation

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By Chris Voorhees, President and Rhae Adams, VP Business Development & Strategy

What is Systems Engineering?

Systems engineering is one of the first modern technical and organizational toolkits aimed at bettering the understanding and management of complex systems. By enforcing deep and complete visibility, systems engineering enables a clear understanding of the system in place, how it can be used to satisfy the objectives of the owner, and the manner in which the system’s parts communicate and interact with each other.

When deployed correctly, systems engineering is a highly effective method of creating sustainable innovation inside companies, organizations, and governments.

“The central tenet is a simple, yet radical problem-solving approach based on requirement discovery, definition, and communication. While most organizations rely on heritage, past success/failure, and intuition to guide innovation, systems engineering forces companies to approach each problem with a clean slate and an open mind.”

Requirements articulate what the system needs to accomplish but they stop short of describing how the system will do so. Rather than finding a way to use drones inside an operation, for example, drones would be evaluated against other options in the context of a specific problem that must be solved. In this fashion, implementation is one of the last activities during the systems engineering process, not the first.

During the process, complexity can be treated as an asset and as a competitive advantage, allowing for true leaps in technology instead of iterations. An organizational competency in systems engineering has led to many of the breakthrough products, engineering projects, and industry shakeups over the past decade.

Systems Engineering Tools

Systems engineering seeks to achieve a set of defined objectives by finding balance across five broad categories: requirements, resources, risks, interfaces, and verification/validation. These categories span internal and external factors across technical, marketing, business, environmental, and other considerations. All work together to bring clarity to new and existing systems, identifying the right solutions over the life of the system.

Objectives are the high-level goals of the organization, usually abstract, that should be agreed upon by leadership teams. Inside objectives, what you want to do and why you want to do it should be reflected. These strategic objectives are translated into actionable requirements that can be verified, validated, and used to defend an implementation decision.

Requirements begin the detailed Systems Engineering process, starting at the high level and working into the specifics. Good requirements stem from objectives and start at the ‘Mission Level’, working down into system and subsystem requirements.

Typically, a good requirement must be:

Clear: a single thought that is easy to understand

Unambiguous: has a single interpretation

Concise: no unnecessary information

Necessary: the system must actually need to do this

Feasible: technically possible within budget / schedule / other constraints

Implementation Independent: does not dictate a specific solution

Verifiable: a verification method is identified and feasible

Traceable: it is clear which higher-level requirement has spawned the need

Resources specify what constraints the system has to contend with in order to achieve success. These include consumable inputs such as power, water, equipment, and people, and replenishable inputs such as budget, schedule, and land. These resources are balanced by systems engineers, especially in cases where there are conflicts between the needs of different system elements. Understanding the resources, and therefore the constraints, as early as possible in system development will yield the best solution for a particular application.

Risks are understood at the system and sub-system level, including technical, developmental, operational, and programmatic factors. These risks are described, ranked, and tracked so that a clear mitigation path can be identified and added into the system’s development and maintenance strategy. In the cases where a mitigation strategy cannot be identified, the item is ‘red flagged’ and must be communicated and agreed upon by all stakeholders.

Interfaces describe how one element of a system relates to another through identification and documentation in an Interface Control Document (ICD). Identifying and managing interfaces is one of the jobs of the systems engineering team and include everything from mechanical, electrical, and software interfaces to functional, organizational, and human-to-machine cases.

In the design and development of a complex system, all of the above will inevitably change. The robust baseline developed by systems engineering allows for those changes to flow through the system successfully rather than creating unintended consequences.

Ongoing Verification and Validation (V&V) provides a healthy skepticism to question if the system is reflective of the program’s objectives. Whereas Verification answers the questions, “Did I do the thing right?” or “Am I done doing the thing?”, Validation answers the question, “Am I currently doing the right thing?”. Validation is also the conduit for employees to voice concern or suggest improvements. A continued recursive loop back up to the objectives (even from a very detailed vantage point) helps keep teams on track, honest, and conscious of what is supposed to be important to the project or program.

Managing Innovation

Innovation as a discipline often suffers from the human instinct to overestimate what is possible in the short term while simultaneously underestimating what can happen in the long term. This leads to trendy technology driving projects (e.g. ‘how can we use drones/AI/blockchain/etc.’) instead of sound evaluation of all possible solutions (e.g. ‘how can we solve XYZ problem’).

In simple terms, the systems engineering approach creates lasting innovation by identifying and quantifying a system’s goals, creating alternative system design concepts, performing design trades, selecting and implementing the best design, verifying that the design is properly built and integrated, and performing post-implementation assessments of how well the system meets (or met) its goals.

Such traceability and clear reasoning for decisions creates a lasting connection to the original project goals, potentially decades after the system has been designed and put into operation. The tight control of technology, interfaces, and system optimization allows innovative work to achieve success even across multiple geographies, vendors, and stakeholders. The International Space Station is one such example of a complex systems engineering project – without clear requirements, coordination between the various nations and teams would have been impossible.

Systems engineering also allows for a dramatic increase in system complexity, often producing revolutionary technologies as a result. Deep control over interfaces between parts of a system make systems engineers the glue that holds an increasingly complex system together, though invisible from the outside.

In doing so, the gap that exists between informal requirements from users, operators, marketing organizations, and technical specifications is successfully bridged. By standardizing communication across teams, information flow and decision making across the system is smooth.

While systems engineering does not guarantee that the eventual implementation ‘looks’ innovative, it does guarantee that all objectives are met. In this way, requirements can be written that feed a corporate innovation strategy without risking project execution.