Editor’s note: There are six platinum sponsors for the 2010 MIT Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges. In this article, spokesmen for the six—Global Project Design, John Deere, Merck/MSD, MITRE, United Technologies Research Center, and Werfen/Instrumentation Lab—share why they value systems thinking, the strategic imperative for technical professionals who understand management, how they work with SDM, and why they are supporting the systems thinking conference.
Global Project Design
Global Project Design (GPD) is a company that assists executives and teams with real-time design of complex initiatives. Founded in 1999 by Bryan Moser, a 1989 graduate of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program, GPD integrates architectural modeling of products, processes, and organizations to create feasible, lean plans for complex projects. The company has created and delivers the innovative TeamPort software suite that aids in the integration of these activities.
“The impact of our work is the capability of a team of teams to plan early and rapidly, with accuracy in cost, schedule, and quality risk,” Moser said. “An effective project design exercise leads to situational awareness of a system and its risk due to the overlap of product, process, and organization architectures.”
GDP is sponsoring this year’s SDM conference because the company is dedicated to spreading systems thinking throughout industry, Moser said. “If a company wants to be competitive, they need to ensure their workforce has this skill set.”
Moser said that GDP and SDM are still on the leading edge of this transformation—too many companies remain attached to traditional planning processes. “For a century, the way that most professions characterized work and how we organized for work had one fundamental assumption—stability in product, process, or organization,” Moser said. “What’s different today is that really it’s a system of systems—products, processes, and organizations are shifting constantly.”
Moser said his company uses visual representations—such as the design structure matrix (DSM) taught in SDM—to trim weeks or even months of centralized planning down to a days of collaborative visual planning and simulation. “The DSM taught now is one good example of stepping back to visualize and analyze the essential architectural quality of modern complex work,” he said. “There are patterns and insights [gained from using this tool] that would otherwise be lost.”
Although GDP is still an emerging company, Moser said he sees the SDM connection as an investment in the future. “The first people I want to hire to build up my company will be SDM grads,” he said.
John Deere is a world leader in providing advanced products and services for agriculture, forestry, construction, lawn and turf care, landscaping, and irrigation. John Deere also provides financial services worldwide and manufactures and markets engines used in heavy equipment.
Systems thinking is central to John Deere’s business, according to Brian J. Gilmore, manager of worksite productivity. “We have applied [systems thinking principles] to all of our major machine subsystems, mainly in the advanced technology systems—engines, power systems, intelligent vehicles, and electronic vehicles.”
The company also faces complex challenges that require a systems approach, he said. “We continue to work toward reducing engine emissions per federal guidelines and to help our customers become more productive through the delivery of more intelligent equipment,” he said.
John Deere has sponsored the MIT SDM systems thinking conference at the platinum level for the past two years because the company supports the program’s mission, Gilmore said. “We believe strongly in systems engineering, and this is a forum to bring people together with similar viewpoints,” he said. “Our people can attend and bring some ideas back into the company.”
Among the likely attendees this year are the four SDM master’s students and 18 SDM certificate students that John Deere currently sponsors in the program. The company, which has been involved in SDM for five years, has sent more and more students each year. “We do recommend the program to other companies, and we encourage the right people within our company to consider it,” said Gilmore, noting that John Deere has been very pleased with the results it has seen.
“Whether they pursue the SDM master’s or certificate, [SDM graduates] say that they really understand the product delivery process much better,” he said. “They are then more effective in doing what they’re doing and in providing guidance to the rest of the organization.”
Merck/MSD is one of the world’s largest health-care solutions companies. With operations in more than 140 countries, Merck delivers health-care solutions through prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic therapies, consumer care, and animal health products.
The company sponsors the SDM conference because systems thinking can help Merck provide better and more innovative health-care solutions, according to Michael P. Thien, ScD, senior vice president for global science, technology, and commercialization in Merck’s Manufacturing Division.
“The world of pharmaceuticals is getting very complicated,” Thien said. “With the emphasis on emerging markets, the advent of biosimilars, the recognition of opportunities in consumer care and the global need for vaccines, it is no longer possible to make strategic advances by focusing on single functional elements of our business. Using a systems approach, like the frameworks offered up at MIT’s SDM program, allows us to navigate many business challenges.”
Merck values the SDM conference for two reasons, Thien said. “The first is in enhancing the mindset of the attendees to think more broadly and holistically about complex system problems,” he said. “The second element has been in the formation of cross-academic, cross-industry connections.” Over the years, such connections have led to beneficial collaborations between the company and MIT, ranging from simple email interchanges to longer-term projects, he said.
While Merck has only been formally involved with SDM since 2009, the company has a long association with MIT, including participating in the Industrial Liaison Program. Partnering with SDM is helping the company evaluate its technology strategy as well as address more tactical problems, such as design choices, Thien said.
“Merck has been and plans to be very active in SDM,” Thien said. “Through our sponsorship of students in SDM, we are increasingly able to easily learn from and access the work of MIT experts for solving real business problems.”
MITRE is a not-for-profit organization chartered to work in the public interest. The company manages Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, partnering with government customers to support their most crucial operational missions.
Since the federal government faces ever increasing complexity in its systems and enterprises, systems thinking is critical to MITRE’s mission, according to Louis Metzger, a senior vice president at MITRE and the company’s corporate chief engineer.
“Networked systems must interoperate with, respond to, and co-evolve with an environment that constantly changes,” he said. “Systems thinking has always been important, but it is even more crucial now.”
MITRE has been involved with SDM for 10 years and has been a sponsor of the systems thinking conference for the past three. “Much of what is presented at these conferences is relevant to the research MITRE is fostering in systems engineering,” Metzger said, noting that the conference helps MITRE stay abreast of the best practices in this evolving field and enhances the company’s recruitment efforts by building name recognition within the systems engineering community.
“Systems engineering skills, discipline, and thinking are foundational capabilities that enhance MITRE’s ability to support our government sponsors,” Metzger said. “We try to understand the full problem space and all the factors that influence success. We account for all necessary technical and non-technical aspects. We then combine engineering knowledge and rigor with an intimate understanding of end-user needs, so that our advice and recommendations are based on solid data and convincing, defensible analysis set in the context of the applicable mission environment.”
MITRE employs several SDM alumni and continues to send staff through the program and to recruit on campus. “Expanding the number of staff who can apply systems thinking will help us and our customers to be more successful,” Metzger said.
United Technologies Research Center
United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) delivers advanced technologies and research to the businesses of United Technologies, industry leaders in aerospace propulsion, building infrastructure and services, heating and air conditioning, fire and security systems, and power generation.
“UTRC is proud to sponsor the SDM conference because energy, sustainability and systems design align with our priorities,” said Isaac Cohen, director of UTRC’s Systems Department. “The conference is an opportunity to dialogue with leaders of industry and academia and engage on current technical challenges as well as see what’s being done in terms of technology development.”
“The opportunity for developing technology options and solutions using a systems-based approach is great, and in many areas represents value that can be realized in the very near term,” Cohen said. For example, a building has a security architecture, an HVAC system, safety controls, and a multitude of operational functions that historically have not been designed to operate as an integrated system, he explained. “Consider the possibilities of sustained, efficient performance in buildings once you enable capabilities to drive awareness, reaction, and adaptability across the life cycle of operation.”
Cohen added, “From a systems engineering perspective, a key challenge is how do you control and activate these components—which are designed and developed from a variety of independent sources—and what are the best pathways to pursue as priorities?”
Cohen said that consequently UTRC is not only interested in supporting the systems thinking conference, but also in connecting with SDM students who will be in attendance.
“UTRC is experiencing very strong growth, and we’re looking for exceptional talent with systems engineering thinking and healthy creativity,” Cohen said. “More and more we need different skill sets—people who can comprehend systems’ complexity.”
Werfen Group/Instrumentation Laboratory
A worldwide developer, manufacturer, and distributor of in vitro diagnostic instruments, Instrumentation Laboratory (IL) has been involved with SDM for three years. Not only does IL support the SDM conference, the company also sponsors students in the certificate program (some employees have gone on to pursue master’s), and has benefited from “lunch and learn” sessions with MIT professors, who have visited the company to share insights on current systems problems.
Gene Achter, vice president of advanced development and technology and chief technology officer, said SDM has helped IL to spread systems thinking throughout the company. “Systems thinking helps you address the interactive part of challenges, which are the hardest to deal with,” he said. “In the end the instruments don’t care and the molecules don’t care. You can’t talk the systems into working.”
IL has sponsored six SDM students to date, but is already seeing a difference in the organization, according to Jessica Levesque, IL’s human resources manager. “One of the things I’ve noticed with SDM grads is that they’re very interested in imparting their knowledge,” she said. “Getting people in different parts of the organization participating [in SDM] helps get people thinking—I’m not just a mechanical engineer working on this rotary valve, I’m part of a system. And that’s huge.”
Both Achter and Levesque plan to attend this year’s conference, as they have in years past. “The thing that I liked the most about the last of these sessions was the chief engineer of NASA talking about role of systems engineers,” Achter said. “He said some are working on subsystems and think that as long as they focus on meeting the requirements for that subsystem, everything will be fine. But requirements are written by people and may not be accurate. Every engineer has to be looking out for interactions.”
Levesque said that she finds all the conference presentations interesting, but that’s not the main reason the company sponsors the event. Sponsoring the conference helps IL to raise awareness about its business, she said. “When you work with MIT there’s so much visibility.”