Friday, May 28, 2010

Oil Spills, Peanut Butter, and System Safety


Former Mars SVP of R&D is now an SDM student

By David Rosenbaum


Who will be blamed for the Gulf oil spill? The U.S. government? BP? "They'll blame the oil rig operators," says John D. Helferich, System Design and Management (SDM) 2010, "This is unfortunate, but predictable, because the operators are all dead."

"However," Helferich continues, "all accidents are caused by system failures, usually due to production pressure that leads to safety rules being broken. That's pretty much what happened with the 2009 Peanut Corp. of America recall. Somebody said we have a problem; someone else said, 'Keep the line moving.'"

Helferich has been creating systems for a long time. In this, he is a bit different than most SDM students.

Actually, says Helferich, "I'm different than all of them."

An MIT alum (S.B. in Chemical Engineering, 1979), Helferich worked at Mars (the sixth largest privately-held company in the U.S.) for over 20 years, the last 11 as SVP of R&, responsible for over 350 employees. He championed Mars' research into the anti-oxidant properties of chocolate, retired at 50 ("because I could") and began teaching as an adjunct lecturer at Northeastern University's MBA program.

"I did okay as a teacher," says Helferich, 50. "I mean, I spent 20 years at the top. But I started to wonder if I should know more."

Helferich began auditing ESD courses and was struck by the research of Professor Nancy Leveson, who began working on computer software safety analysis and moved on to aviation, aeronautics, and refineries, using the System-Theoretic Model of Accidents (STAMP).

"Her class was so cool," says Helferich. "We'd step through a disaster per week, which was a great learning experience."

Using the STAMP system, Helferich is investigating the vast 2009 peanut butter recall. "Food safety systems," Helferich explains, "currently are based on a model developed to feed the Mercury astronauts. NASA went to Pillsbury and said, 'We need a food that will neither crumble nor make them sick.' Pillsbury realized it couldn't test all the food, so it used the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points methodology used for missiles. That's a good method, but it can't take into account system pressures beyond the production line."

Today, says Helferich, there are new pressures on the food supply chain--more imported food; the trend toward more locally grown produce may cause it to drift from a safe state to an unsafe one.

"If everyone ate nothing but canned food, we'd all be safe," says Helferich. "But who wants that?" In this interconnected world where fruit picked in China on Monday shows up on Cambridge tables on Wednesday, new questions about safety must be addressed--and addressing them is why Helferich came to SDM after a long, successful career.

"An MBA would have been ridiculous for me," Helferich says. "I have all that experience. I don't need to get ahead. There are a lot of MBAs. There are only 50 SDMers. SDM returns me to my roots as an engineer. And being around people with all different kinds of experience is fun.

"For me, it's about service to my industry," he concludes. "I'm done working, but I'm not done advocating."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From China to Washington to MIT

Software engineer chooses SDM master’s in engineering and management

By David Rosenbaum
May 20, 2010


While studying English in Dalian, China, Chunguang (which means “spring sunshine”) realized her name was unpronounceable in English. Her teacher encouraged her to choose another, which is how Chunguang Wang, who loved Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, became Charlotte Wang, System Design and Management (SDM) class of 2010.


©Kathy Tarantola Photography

Becoming Charlotte was only the beginning of Wang’s long trek from Dalian, a port city in northeast China, to the start of a career that would take her first to America’s heartland—as a student at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, Iowa—then to its West Coast – as a software engineer and project manager in state government in Olympia, Washington – and then to its East Coast, where she is now a student in MIT’s System Design and Management program.

This summer Wang will head to Shanghai to work at World Expo 2010 in international relations and management for innovative technology. In July she will continue her journey when she weds architect Zhiyong Wang in Manzhouli, inner Mongolia where his parents reside. She will then go to a wedding reception in Dalian hosted by her family, a honeymoon in Greece, and another reception in Olympia for all the friends she’s made over the past decade at work. After that, she’ll return to World Expo 2010 while her husband heads to MIT to matriculate in SDM this fall.

Wang’s life has been characterized by change and adventures not limited to travel. An accomplished bass player, she has performed with the Seattle Chamber Orchestra and other groups. Recruited by Washington State after graduating from Dordt, Wang helped implement a $70 million ERP system to create a new HR management system. She also helped bring lean processes to state-controlled liquor stores, which increased revenues by 300 percent.

It was in that role—working with legislators; organizing teams; interacting with business people—that Wang began to enjoy management. “I could no longer see myself spending my life sitting in front of a screen,” she says.

“Originally, I thought I should look at an MBA,” Wang says, “but I didn’t want to leave technology.” SDM, she thought she would allow “more flexibility” in customizing her course of studies to include technology and management. She also felt that because SDM students average over 9 years of real-world experience, she would be studying and working with seasoned peers, not undergrads who had gone right into graduate school.

What really surprised Wang were the professors, such as Ed Crawley, who works with NASA and Michael Cusumano, whose expertise is in strategy, product development, and entrepreneurship in the computer software industry. “These are accomplished people who listen to you and treat you as a peer,” she says.

Someday Wang hopes to start her own business. For now, however, she’s concentrating on her SDM studies, her summer working at World Expo 2010, and of course her wedding activities.

Monday, May 24, 2010

SDM student on cloud computing strategies

SDM ’09 Mona Masghati recently presented a poster on Strategies for Entering New Business Areas by Leveraging Cloud Computing Technologies to an audience of executives who sponsor research at the MIT Center for Digital Business. Mona’s research was sponsored by British Telecom.

Here’s the poster.


SDM ’09 Mona Masghati (right) with Steve Whittaker, British Telecom Head of Strategic U.S. University Research Partnerships and a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Two members of MIT System Design and Management program promoted to USAF colonel

SDM students David B. Morgan and Gregory J. McNew were recently promoted to the rank of Colonel in the United States Air Force.

Greg and Dave, congratulations and thanks for your service to our country!


SDM '10 David B. Morgan is sworn in as USAF colonel by presiding official Colonel Jerry D. Whitley. SDM '10 Kris Cowart (far left) participated as narrator.
Photo courtesy of Dave Morgan



Lieutenant General Bowlds and Rhonda McNew after pinning "Eagles" on SDM '10 Gregory J. McNew.
Photo courtesy of Greg McNew

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oil spills, safety and system design and management

By David Rosenbaum

As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from the recent catastrophic BP blowout, MIT System Design and Management student Adama Soro ’09 can only shake his head.


Adama Soro, SDM ‘09
©Kathy Tarantola Photography


“I’m sure it could have been prevented,” he says. “Safety technologies must advance with production technologies. Usually, they don’t. In this case, they didn’t. Engineers were relying on containment techniques for shallow waters hoping that they would work in deep waters without any serious test at such depths.”

Indeed, the containment dome BP deployed to cap the mile-deep leak was constructed after the blowout. “It’s like building the fire truck when your house is on fire,” oil spill consultant Dr. Rick Steiner told The Boston Globe.

The problem, Soro says, is that safety is not integrated enough into systems during design because it is deemed costly; it is sometimes appended afterward. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, none of the safety systems in place worked: be it the rubber seals, the blowout preventer or its back-up system called the Deadman. Those technologies were not adapted for deep waters, a real challenge for oil companies’ research and development organizations.

System safety is the field that Soro chose to investigate further at SDM, which resides within the MIT Engineering Systems Division. He contends that information flow is instrumental for improving safety in organizations. However, the existing culture in most organizations that systematically assigns blame to people involved in accidents is a serious impediment to building an effective safety reporting system. This dysfunctional culture is the subject of Soro’s SDM thesis, “Assessment of an Emerging Concept in System Safety: The Just Culture.”

The “Who messed up?” investigative approach derives from the traditional "culture of blame,” Soro says. Instead, he contends that the emerging concept in system safety called the “just culture,” in which individuals are not punished for their mistakes (unless they intentionally violate the rules or they are responsible for gross negligence), can help create the atmosphere of trust needed for people to willingly report their mistakes and near misses. In a word, a just culture improves both the quality and quantity of information flowing to management and thereby provides it with the tools to improve both systems and safety. As Soro’s advisor on his thesis work, Nancy Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, says, “Blame is the enemy of safety.”

“It’s easier and less expensive to change people than to change systems,” says Soro. “Mistakes happen sometimes because of production pressure, people are asked to do things too fast and then they stop following rules. There is a trade-off between safety and production. Also, changing people without improving systems only increases the chance for error.”

Soro has seen this dismal dynamic at first hand. After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute of Cote d’Ivoire with an SM in electrical engineering, he was hired by the Ivorian Electric Company and placed in charge of quality management. There, Soro saw that when accidents occurred management did not want to hear about flaws in its systems. After all, they had been working well up to the moment of the accident (as was BP’s oil drilling platform). The problem, obviously, could not be with the system; it had to be with the operator, so management wanted to know who to discipline. Naturally, workers in the field were loath to report near-accidents, fearful (with good reason) that doing so would jeopardize their jobs. Consequently, the information that management received about incidents was incomplete and often untruthful, making it impossible to fix the real problem.

“You need to know about a problem before you can fix it,” Soro says. “If people don’t talk, accidents will happen.”

At the Ivorian Electrical Company, Soro had neither the experience nor the authority to change the “blame culture.” That experience, and his subsequent work managing the construction of electrical substations for the UN delegation sent to Cote d’Ivoire during its political crisis, led Soro to MIT’s System Design and Management program to improve his project management and system design skills.

Moreover at the UN, says Soro, “I was always over budget and missed deadlines. Now, with the tools and understanding I’ve acquired at SDM, I’m better prepared to go back to the workplace.

“I believe change is possible,” Soro continues. “We can improve systems and their safety by improving our mindset and our workplaces.

“And next week,” he concludes, “I have a job interview with an oil company and I will offer some guidelines on how to improve safety in high-risk environments.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Product design, development experts named faculty co-directors of MIT’s System Design and Management Program

by Pat Hale, Director, SDM Fellows Program

MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program has two new faculty co-directors, both experts in the field of product design and development. Professor Steven D. Eppinger and Professor Warren P. Seering will represent MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT School of Engineering respectively. Both are renowned for their cutting-edge research, as well as for their commitment to education.

On June 29 they will join us for lunch at the MIT Faculty Club to attend the SDM town hall meeting and to spend time with our students.

SDM is about design and development, and there are few at MIT with more experience in these disciplines than Steve and Warren—we are fortunate to have them as our new leaders. All of us here in SDM are thrilled that they have joined us and look forward to working with them both.

With this, SDM is passing another milestone of sorts, as we designate separate faculty co-directors for SDM from MIT Sloan and the School of Engineering and keep the original team for LGO. We all thank Professors Tom Allen and David Simchi-Levi for their hard work and support in evolving SDM and wish them the best as they continue to be the co-directors for LGO and in all of their endeavors. Their support of MIT’s System Design and Management program was much appreciated and we are grateful for their leadership and their service.


Professor Steven D. Eppinger


Professor Warren P. Seering

Friday, May 14, 2010

MIT SDM alumnus reports from Iraq; authors articles on systems thinking


Major Nathan Minami, SDM ’06, recently wrote to let us know that he is currently deployed to Iraq, serving in Baghdad as the operations officer for an 800-soldier light infantry battalion.

“It’s amazing to see how much things have improved since I was here in 2000; it’s good to know that much gain has come from our efforts,” he said. “I am amazed each time I drive through or fly over Baghdad to see how it looks like a pretty normal city with lots of cars on the roads, shops open, and people walking about. And what's most impressive is that the government of Iraq, Iraqi security forces and essential service agencies are running the country now, largely on their own with relatively little support from us.”

Nate has also recently authored or co-authored some systems thinking articles:

Understanding the Problem in Afghanistan: A Plan for Stability

Dynamic Analysis of Combat Vehicle Accidents – co-authored with Professor Stuart Madnick
(scroll down to VOLUME 25, NUMBER 2, April/June, 2009)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

MD in System Design and Management Program Helps Produce H1N1 Video

Sahar Hashmi is an MD from Pakistan who is interested in healthcare management. She is currently an MIT graduate student, first in SDM and now in the Ph.D. program of the Engineering Systems Division, who is doing research on pandemic flu spread and its relation to behavioral changes using non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI).

Under the auspices of Professor Richard C. Larson and Dr. Elizabeth Murray, Sahar was a member of a team that produced a video module for the Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies (BLOSSOMS) initiative on H1N! prevention shortly after she joined SDM. Check it out!


(Left to right) Dr. Sahar Hasmi, who is a student in MIT's SDM and ESD Ph.D. programs, with Dr. Elizabeth Murray, and Professor Richard C. Larson of MIT's Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies (BLOSSOMS) initiative.

Monday, May 10, 2010

SDM student featured in article on entrepreneurship

Carrie Stalder, a student in MIT's System Design and Management program was featured in an article on entrepreneurship and her work with Venture Café. Check it out!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

SDM students and SO survive MIT's Iron Nerd Triathlon

On May 2, 2010, four students in MIT's System Design and Management program (and one SDM spouse) participated in the Iron Nerd Triathlon. Sponsored by MIT Wellness Week, the first-time triathletes included SDM '10 Karl Critz, SDM '09s Andrei Akaikine, James, Enos, and Oz Rahman -- plus SDM spouse Kathleen Taylor (Oz's wife) who works as a pharmacist at MIT Medical.

Termed a "mini-sprint triathlon", the event consisted of swimming in the Z-Center pool, plus running and bicycling along the Charles River. Each member of the group completed all events. Congrats to them all!


Left to right: SDM students Andrei Akaikine, Karl Critz, Kathleen Taylor (MIT Medical/SDM spouse), Oz Rahman, and James Enos all completed MIT Wellness Week's Iron Nerd Triathlon.