Monday, July 25, 2011

Jean-Claude Saghbini, SDM '03: Systems Thinking for Tracking Medical Devices

By Eric Smalley

Jean-Claude Saghbini
Photo courtesy of WaveMark, Inc.
Designing a system to track medical devices from manufacturing to patient requires leveraging the latest RFID, cloud, and mobile technologies. Building that system requires mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and software development. And growing a medical device tracking business requires coordinating this diverse engineering mission with a sales and marketing effort aimed at multiple constituents: medical device manufacturers, hospital administrators, and healthcare providers.

Sounds like a job for someone with an education in systems thinking: WaveMark, Inc. CTO and VP of Engineering Jean-Claude Saghbini, SDM '03.

Saghbini was the seventh person to join WaveMark after it was founded in 2003. He built and now manages the hardware development, software development, and manufacturing organizations. WaveMark's smart cabinets and shelves are in hospitals in the United States and Europe, and the company is expanding into Asia. WaveMark's system handles over 20 million transactions a day.

The SDM program's systems-thinking focus has been critical to how WaveMark's system has been evolving and growing from a technical point of view, Saghbini said. "It also gave me the business understanding to allow me to better connect with the business aspect of the company and make sure that we're not doing engineering in a vacuum."

Saghbini grew up in Lebanon during the country's civil war and came to the United States to go to school in 1990. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, then earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at MIT where he continued to develop his interest in software. He gained experience in developing massively parallel processing applications and in using numerical simulation to solve fluid mechanics problems.

After earning his master's degree, Saghbini worked at Polaroid, where he combined mechanical engineering, software development, and systems integration to build medical and digital imaging products. He then moved on to EMC, where he organized and managed a software development organization. Saghbini was also involved in launching Fantasy Seats, a company that operates a futures market for sporting events.
While at EMC, Saghbini looked into earning a business degree. "The SDM program was a perfect match because it combined engineering and management, and because I was able to attend while continuing to work at EMC," he said.

The most beneficial part of Saghbini's SDM experience was having classmates who were either working in or just out of industry, he said. "It wasn't just about the classes, it was also about the classmates who brought deep experience into the classroom."

An advantage of being in the SDM program while working is that you're able to immediately implement what you're learning, said Saghbini. "You don't have to wait years to graduate, then start seeing the problems, then start solving them," he said. "You're in class and it just hits you — 'I've been struggling with this forever.' And you go back and a couple of weeks later you start making changes based on what you're learning at SDM."

Jean-Claude Saghbini is scheduled to give two presentations for the MIT SDM Systems Thinking Webinar Series about WaveMark on September 19 and 26, 2011 — one on tracking medical devices in the healthcare supply chain, and one on developing the systems to support this. Details will be posted at

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Malvern Atherton, SDM '04: Systems Thinking and the Human Components of Flight

By Cody Romano

Malvern Atherton
Photo courtesy of Rolls-Royce
Although the Rolls-Royce brand may evoke thoughts of royalty for some consumers, the office of Malvern Atherton, an SDM alumnus and the company's chief design engineer for control systems in Indianapolis, is strikingly meritocratic. An open-plan area with low cubicle walls allows him to sit among his staff engineers, exchanging creative ideas and reviewing their proposals. With 20 years of experience engineering jet engine control systems, Atherton is well equipped to decide whether or not to approve each design.

Still, each stamp of approval requires careful consideration, since an engine control system behaves much like the essential nervous system of an aircraft. It keeps watch over a network of various software components and mechanical parts that must coalesce flawlessly before the plane or helicopter can take off. Dozens of commercial and military aircrafts depend on systems developed by Atherton and his team, including the US Air Force's Global Hawk.

SDM '04 Malvern Atherton, Chief Design Engineer for
Control Systems at Rolls-Royce, standing next to the Rolls-Royce AE3007A1E
turbofan engine, used on the Embraer ERJ145 family of regional jets
and business jets. This engine is similar to those used on the Cessna Citation X
business jet and the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.
Photos courtesy of Rolls-Royce

"After I've reviewed proposals for our engine control systems, I sometimes sit with engineers and ask why they've made certain design decisions," Atherton said. "By challenging them to improve their process, I'm passing on lessons I've learned."

One lesson in particular prepared Atherton for his recent promotion to a more senior management role at Rolls-Royce: the success of systems, however technical or complex, often depends on individual people and personalities in the workplace. Upon graduating from the SDM program in 2005, he returned to his company's largest North American operations in Indianapolis with a heightened awareness of what he calls the "non-technical aspects" of systems.

"Having access through the SDM program to MIT's Sloan School of Management was particularly valuable for me," the engineer explained, "because it taught me to think about the human, cultural aspects of system design. I learned to ask questions like, 'What do my team members really want?' and 'What are their unique talents?'"

Appreciating cultural nuances is especially important for employees of a global company like Rolls-Royce, which has business sectors scattered throughout North America, the United Kingdom and the world, Atherton says. Now that he has developed a broader understanding of culture as it relates to management, the engineer feels more comfortable publicly promoting his company's products. He proudly highlighted the features of a jet engine, for instance, during a meeting with leaders of a European company that manufactures helicopters. "I've learned how to adapt my communication style when speaking with different clients," said Atherton, "and in that sense I've become a much more confident, effective negotiator."

Even prior to the start of his engineering career, Atherton knew that he wanted to study at MIT; one of his favorite teachers in high school, a skilled mathematician, had earned his PhD from the Institute. Although Atherton went on to study at several other institutions before matriculating at the SDM program in 2004, his entire academic career is a testament to the MIT motto "Mind and Hand."

The young engineer completed a thorough regimen of courses, ranging from robotics to digital systems design, while earning his BSc in electrical and mechanical engineering from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1988. Outside of the lecture hall, Atherton applied these systems theories to hands-on projects, earning the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers' coveted Project Prize award for one of his devices, a computer-controlled system that analyzed vibrations. As a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in England, Atherton concentrated on control systems. His studies prepared him to join Rolls-Royce as an engine control systems engineer shortly after his graduation in 1989.

After 14 years developing controls for jet fighters, prop planes, and helicopters, among other complex systems-based projects, Atherton was delighted to realize his goal of studying at MIT. Joining the SDM program in 2004, he networked with other aviation and aerospace professionals, including Hamilton Sundstrand Vice President Thomas Pelland and Hamilton Sundstrand Electronic Design Manager Steve Bresnahan, a vendor for Rolls-Royce. "In general, we were deeply impressed with the depth and breadth of SDM's curriculum," said Atherton, "and with its relevance to our industry in particular."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reengineering Complex Systems to Empower Young Women

By Cody Ned Romano

Leena Ratnam
Working as the U.S. Project Coordinator for the Association for India's Development (AID), Leena Ratnam, a student in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) Program embarked on a personal goal to empower young women through AID's nurse-training program. On behalf of AID, she worked with people who never received formal grade-school education, providing them with a fundamental understanding of biology, economics of the healthcare ecosystem, and nursing. Many have since gone on to successful careers in a major city as health workers and medical aides.

"My mission is to help construct social systems that better serve society across borders," Ratnam said. "This is the kind of stuff that hits home for me."

Shortly after Ratnam's tenth birthday, she and her parents moved to Silicon Valley in California. Attending junior high and high school there, the budding engineer became fascinated with computer science and biology. What excited her most were the possibilities of merging those fields to create more effective healthcare systems. "I remember picking up a book at the bookstore about bioinformatics when I was 14," she said. "I thought that information systems was going to be the future because it spans multiple industries.'"

To further augment her interest in technology, Ratnam earned her B.S. in management information systems in California. There she learned to apply broad systems-thinking principles to real-world computing problems. Upon graduating, she leveraged this talent to build a decade-long successful career as an analyst and consultant for Fortune 500 companies.

Last year, when Ratnam took leave from the corporate world to find a master's program, an important benchmark helped her to determine which one would match her interests. "I needed to find a holistic program that would keep my passion for technology alive while allowing me to explore aspects of management," Ratnam said. "SDM resonated with me because it satisfied my creativity in both areas. It gives me lots of latitude to explore different perspectives"

The SDM student body is unique in the variety of viewpoints that it encompasses, Ratnam explained. Sitting beside her during lectures are students from Chile, Turkey, and Spain, among many other nations. "I really appreciate the breadth of international perspectives in the classroom," she said. "It makes you stop and think, 'Wow! Is that how it's happening in his or her industry or country?'"

During class discussions, Ratnam also draws upon her own cache of industry experience. While working as a business analyst for a Fortune 500 technology company, she encountered an enormous systems-based problem. Her company oversaw a network of business units and physical systems spread throughout dozens of countries, including Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Frequently, these business units needed to share information with corporate data centers based in the United States. Some of them, however, used outdated software that caused sluggish performance or was not scalable for data transfers. Further complicating the communication problem were differing platforms, subsystems, international policies and regulations, and exchanges across time zones.

To resolve the issue, Ratnam and her team implemented "middleware." Like a human translator standing between two people speaking different languages, the software interpreted and relayed data between applications and servers. Thanks to Ratnam and her team's solution, data transfers that once took up to seven days can now be completed in mere seconds across countries.

The SDM courses Ratnam has attended since then have shown her how systems thinking can be applied to solve complex problems in many different arenas. Upon graduating from SDM, she plans to work in the industry where applying her newfound understanding of systems can improve the quality of life for those at home in the United States and in developing countries.

"At this point, I'm much more interested in social systems than in automotive or mechanical systems," Ratnam said. "They are incredibly rewarding to study from a personal standpoint. It is the human touch that really matters in is that touch that has enabled the girls in our AID program to go from feeling hopeless to realizing a bright, new way of life for themselves."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

George Roth: Managing Change Requires an Enterprise View

By Eric Smalley

George Roth
You can learn a lot by comparing successful companies with less successful ones. One critical difference is the ability to manage change. But there are different types of change, and there are different ways of managing change, some more sustainable than others.

George Roth, principal research associate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and head of the Enterprise Change Research Area at MIT's Lean Advancement Initiative, has spent the bulk of his academic career addressing these questions. He observes companies and analyzes organizational leadership, learning, change, and culture.

The former Digital Equipment Corporation executive has found that a key distinction is change within an organization versus change across an organization and its suppliers, distributors, customers, and other related organizations. Roth dubs this set of relationships an organization's enterprise, and has put his focus on these enterprise changes. His findings are that there are five capabilities that distinguish companies that successfully manage enterprise change. Many companies Roth observed are manufacturers, but the principles apply to service, design, and engineering firms as well.

These five capabilities are the subject of an SDM Systems Thinking Webinar that Roth is scheduled to deliver on July 25th at noon: Five Capabilities for Enterprise Change: Approaches for Integrating Continuous Improvement and Strategic Change Across Organizations. During the webinar, Roth will detail these capabilities and illustrate them with case studies.

The first capability, enterprise thinking, means that an organization's people see themselves not just as part of an organization, function, or department, but as part of a larger system, said Roth. "It's very much related to some of the ideas of systems thinking but it's focused by the concept of producing a product or service," he said.

The second capability is installing innovations in sets, which makes it possible to manage multiple types of change, including process improvement, restructuring, and managing boundaries (mergers and acquisitions).

The third capability involves balancing two types of change: push and pull. Pull change is organizational learning and development change -- teambuilding, visioning, getting people to work together, using such methods as learning principles and managing conflict, said Roth. Push change is planned change involving goals and objectives, measurements, and rewards and incentives. "These are different methods of change and oftentimes companies don't distinguish between them, and instead of being compatible they end up actually conflicting with one another," he said.

The fourth capability is seeking growth. Some companies that implement continuous improvement activities like Lean do so from a cost perspective, said Roth. But successful companies tend to focus their improvement efforts around growth objectives, he said.

The fifth capability is distributing leadership, which involves developing leaders who take initiative at all levels. A distributed system of leadership pushes information and understanding of what's going on in the organization to the surface, develops problem-solving skills, and enables people to make improvements that are aligned with one another, Roth said.

Roth developed this set of organizational capabilities over many years of observing companies. His approach to observing companies has evolved. Initially he took a hands-off approach, working much like an anthropologist. Now he is more involved with an organization and its leaders, he said. "My interest is in having an impact, not just studying a system, but being able to engage with the system -- with the organization, with the enterprise -- to improve it."

Systems Thinking and the Cost of Emotion

By Cody Romano

Ricardo Valerdi
Photo by L. Barry Hetherington
Professor Valerdi will deliver a presentation on August 22 as part of the MIT SDM Systems Thinking Webinar Series. Details and registration info are here.
Ricardo Valerdi, until recently a faculty member in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) Program and now an associate professor at the University of Arizona, surprised his SDM students in a lecture hall earlier this year when he jotted "How to Calibrate Your Optimism" in large letters across a whiteboard.

"When you start talking about psychology," says Valerdi, laughing, "engineers usually feel uncomfortable at first. They're used to the technical approach — in understanding the math behind the model. But the psychological aspects can be equally, if not more, important."

Since he started teaching SDM's Cost Estimation and Measurement System course four years ago, Valerdi has frequently posed a unique and challenging question to his students: how does human decision-making, which includes factors like optimism and cynicism, influence the cost of complex systems?

To help engineering students answer this question, Valerdi supervised 20 SDM theses during his time at MIT. His advisees' projects vary in topic from improving healthcare in the Boston area to estimating the costs of launching a miniaturized satellite.

While serving as a research associate for MIT's Lean Advancement Initiative, Valerdi also mentored graduate research assistants. One of his mentees, in collaboration with Assistant Professor Jessika Trancik of Engineering Systems Division, is currently investigating whether or not ocean thermal energy conversion could be made cost-effective enough to compete with other renewable energy sources.

Ricardo Valerdi, with some of his advisees, including SDMs
Ellen Czaika, Taroon Aggarwal, Hassan Bukhari, Gaurav Agarwal,
Charbel Rizk, and Denman James. The other students are from
TPP and Aero/Astro. Professor Deborah Nightingale
is holding Rocco Valerdi, Ricardo's son.
Photo courtesy of Briana Valerd
"MIT encourages people from multiple disciplines to work together to solve extremely complex systems problems," Valerdi says. "As a platform for research, it really opens doors for engineers to impact government and industry."

A former systems engineer for Motorola and senior technical staff member for The Aerospace Corporation, Valerdi remains actively involved in industry and government projects. He sat on the Board of Directors of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), a society in which academic and professional engineers collaborate and discuss issues related to complex systems. At the society's annual symposium in Denver this past June, a panel of technical experts from around the world honored him with a Best Paper Award.

Valerdi's paper proves, through statistical analysis, that a group of experts can generally reach a consensus after completing three rounds of surveys using the Wideband Delphi Method. The method, which allows experts to share opinions and review a general summary of their colleagues' feedback, is designed to elicit unbiased responses to tough questions. By discovering the necessary number of survey rounds, Valerdi could expedite the development of cost estimation models, which often depend on experts' feedback.

With extensive experience in academia and the corporate world, Valerdi recognizes a need for synergy between both arenas. Earlier this year, he and MIT Professor Deborah Nightingale imagined a publication that would strike a balance between practical and theoretical, guiding readers on a two-pronged expedition into how theories of enterprise transformation work and how they impact real organizations. To realize this goal, the researchers pitched their concept to INCOSE and the Institute for Industrial Engineers (IIE). "Everybody wanted to sign on," said Valerdi.

The Journal of Enterprise Transformation (, successfully co-founded by Valerdi and Nightingale, is now affiliated with both IIE and INCOSE, marking the first-ever large-scale collaboration between the organizations. Upcoming articles examine real-world enterprise transformation issues affecting, for example, Starbucks, Reebok, and the U.S. Army.

"When engineers read our journal, it will provide them with insight into issues that are being discussed in the corner office, so-to-speak," says Valerdi. "By understanding how systems thinking enables successful enterprises, they can learn to architect organizations that create more successful products."

Friday, July 1, 2011

SDM’s Charles Iheagwara’s Double Celebration

By Lois Slavin, SDM Communications Director

On Friday, June 3, 2011, MIT SDM student Dr. Charles Iheagwara attended two important celebrations. The night before, he accepted the Maryland Incubator Company of the Year Award on behalf of Unatek, Inc., where he is chief marketing and business development officer. Unatek, which designs and implements network security systems to protect IT infrastructure, received the prize in the "Homeland Security" category.

After accepting the award at the Center Club in Baltimore, Dr. Iheagwara flew to Cambridge, MA, to participate in MIT’s commencement exercises, where he formally graduated from SDM and received an SM in engineering and management.

“It is fair to say that the award to Unatek would have been impossible
without applying the knowledge and education I received from MIT SDM,” said Dr. Iheagwara, who earned a PhD prior to matriculating in the SDM program. “Consequently, I am dedicating the award to the entire MIT SDM community and wish to share my joy with the community as we celebrate this coveted award.”

Congratulations, Charles!

Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) officials with award winners, from left to right: Shawn Branch, Project Coordinator, TEDCO; Robbie Melton, Director, Entrepreneurial Innovation, TEDCO; Charlotte Ducksworth, Director, Prince George's County Small Business Initiative & Technology Assistance Center; Philip Bogart, Esq., Saul Ewing LLP; Charles Iheagwara, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer, Unatek, Inc.; Robert Rosenbaum, President, TEDCO.
TEDCO is a sponsor of the Maryland Incubator Company of the Year Award. 
Photo courtesy of TEDCO.