Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The core of SDM: Inside system and project management - SDM Pulse, Fall 2007

Mark J. Davis
SDM ’07
By Mark J. Davis, SDM ’07

Editor’s note: The core courses for the MIT System Design and Management Program are:
•System architecture, which focuses on artifacts themselves and includes concept, form, function, and decomposition
•Systems engineering, which targets the processes that enable successful implementation of the architecture, and includes QFD, Pugh Concept Selection, and Robust Design
•System and project management, which involves managing tasks to best utilize resources and employs tools such as CPM, DSM, and System Dynamics

This article, the second in a series on the SDM core, introduces system and project management. The author, Mark J. Davis, is a major in the Air Force, an SDM student and a teaching assistant for the course.


SDM’s required course in system and project management (SPM) focuses on the management principles, methods, and tools needed to plan and implement successful development projects. Always highly rated by SDM students, this popular course is led by Professor Olivier de Weck, who is refreshingly smart and down to earth (when he isn’t working on space systems). Taking into account the extensive project management experience that is typical of the SDM cohort, the course builds on SDM students’ understanding of the tensions among technical scope and performance, cost, schedule, and risk, and offers instruction in how to manage these tensions to meet customer expectations.

As outlined in the course syllabus, the objective of SPM is to:

“...introduce advanced principles, methods, and tools for project management in a realistic context, such that they can be taken back to the workplace to improve your ability to manage complex product and system development projects.”

Classic techniques such as critical path method (CPM) and program evaluation and review technique (PERT) scheduling tools are reviewed, but the central tools this course focuses on are critical chain, design structure matrix (DSM), stochastic project simulation, and system dynamics. Case studies, both successful and unsuccessful, show project management tools and methods in use on complex real-world projects. The topics are broken into six modules.

The first module covers critical chain and DSM. Critical chain is primarily a schedule management technique that allows managers to actively control and manage the overall project schedule with buffers instead of just responding to problems as they arise. Design structure matrix helps managers to visualize and manage the interaction and interfaces among the tasks and components of a project, ultimately ordering tasks more efficiently.

The second module, taught by visiting lecturer James Lyneis of the Engineering Systems Division, presents system dynamics methods and techniques within the context of project management. Students work with models to explore such project dynamics as the rework cycle, employee burnout, and the effects of project management policies.

Interspersed throughout the term, based on presenter availability, the third module centers on case studies from actual members of the teams that participated in the projects from which the studies were developed. Students learn a lot from this module, which demonstrates how SPM tools and methods are being applied in such fields as automotive, aerospace, oil and gas exploration, and software development.

The fourth module focuses on how to monitor cost, scheduling, and technical progress. Risk management concepts are explored and the earned value management system (EVMS) is taught. Uncertainty is introduced as a key concept in making projections in order to make more informed project management decisions. Further, the concept of real options in project management is explored. Real options is a method that allows project managers to quantitatively evaluate the potential risks and rewards for different decisions that are being considered.

Students are introduced to the “softer” aspects of project management during the fifth module, which addresses organizational structures, international and geographically dispersed projects, and the human aspects of project management.

The final module summarizes the available organizational and web resources for project managers. The class concludes with presentations of team projects that apply one or more tools and methods learned in class to a real-world problem. The project gives SDM students a great opportunity to apply new knowledge, to learn from fellow students, and to acquire cutting-edge skills that they can bring to their employers.

Examples of past class projects
• DSM and Analysis of Technology Development Process at UTC Power
•Analysis of the Oracle E-Business Suite 11i Project
•Project Management in Open Solaris: Analysis of Tools and Processes
•DSM for Multi-Core Microprocessor Case: Intel
•Multi-Industry Survey of Project Management Tools and Techniques
•DSM in Design Studio Processes at Ford
•Apache Tomcat Open Source Software Project
•Modeling the System Dynamics of a Government Development Project
•Wireless Mesh Deployment Using System Dynamics Optimization of DNA Sequencing at the Broad Institute
•Joint Strike Fighter Concept Demonstrator Engine Development
•Internal Competition During Product Development
•The Theory of Constraints in a Critical Path World
•Efficient Production Management of an Oil Field
•Managing U.S. Navy Shipyard Programs: A Survey of Tools and Methods
•Survey of Methods and Tools at the Federal Emergency Management Agency
•Big Dig Success and Failures: Stakeholders’ Views
•Project Management of SpaceShipOne: The Quest for the X-Prize

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