Friday, September 30, 2011

Women Find Professional and Personal Support Through WiSDM

By Melissa Rosen, SDM '11

Women in SDM (WiSDM) is a student-led organization that was conceived by the women in the System Design and Management (SDM) program. Its mission is to create a network of female leaders and to enhance the ongoing learning experience for students and alumnae of the SDM program. Although the interests of WiSDM stem from the diverse backgrounds of its members, the organization welcomes all members of the MIT community to learn more about the group and to attend its events.

Since many WiSDM members are leaders with experience in creating and managing technology, they share the unique responsibilities of being advanced career professionals who are pursuing graduate education while raising a family and/or working full time in industry. The flexibility of the SDM program attracts these professional women, and WiSDM is charged with creating the support they need to achieve balance at work, school, and home.

Melissa Rosen, left, and Andrea Ippolito have taken leading roles in Women in SDM.

The role of women at MIT dates back to the early 1900s when the first female students realized the importance of creating a network of women to enhance the sociability of the Institute. Since then, women have had a tremendous influence at MIT and now comprise half of the undergraduate student body. There are more than 20 women's groups on campus with a variety of missions, ranging from organizing empowerment and management conferences to providing women with mentoring, safety, and wellness services.

While the women of SDM recognize the impact of these organizations, they also realize the lack of representation by SDM women in many of these important initiatives. Members of WiSDM will add strength to the existing MIT community by offering their technical experience and business aptitude, coupled with their understanding of women's roles in professional and academic settings.

WiSDM is collaborating with the Graduate Women at MIT to organize the Fall Leadership Conference, which was previously sponsored by Microsoft Corporation, and the Spring Empowerment Conference. These events will cover topics such as assertive communication, personal branding, and the dual-career family. WiSDM is also actively partnering with other MIT groups, including Sloan Women in Management, the Society of Women Engineers (MITSWE), and the Association of MIT Alumnae. In October, members of WiSDM will be participating on a panel hosted by MITSWE to educate undergraduate women at MIT about the transition into graduate school and to discuss career options.

Currently, WiSDM is being led by 2011 and 2012 cohort representatives Melissa Rosen, Leena Ratnam, and Andrea Ippolito. As a kickoff to the annual MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges, WiSDM will host a breakfast for prospective female applicants to SDM on Monday, October 24, at 7 am in the MIT Faculty Club. WiSDM will also be hosting a Pilates workshop on Thursday, October 27, at 7:30 am in the Zesiger Center.

To RSVP or to learn more about the women's initiatives at MIT, please email or visit WiSDM's webpage on

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Developing Product Requirements Criteria at bioMérieux

By Lisa Steinhoff, SDM Certificate '10

Lisa Steinhoff
Editor's note: Lisa Steinhoff is an engineering manager in systems development for microbiology at bioMérieux, a world leader in the field of in vitro diagnostics. As a company-sponsored student, she recently completed SDM's one-year Graduate Certificate Program in Systems and Product Development. This included conducting a capstone project in which she applied systems thinking for the benefit of her company.

A few years ago, bioMérieux began building a global systems development group that would put more emphasis on systems engineering approaches to product development. As a member of the Research & Development Engineering group at bioMérieux for the past 10 years, I was interested in how this new focus would affect my role. I therefore began looking for systems engineering programs, a search that led me to the certificate program offered by MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program.

Although I discovered SDM barely in time to apply, I was able to secure support from bioMérieux within days. What sold bioMérieux on this opportunity was the required capstone project, a research endeavor designed to benefit the student's employer. As soon as I started at MIT, I began brainstorming ideas with the company's systems engineering manager, Fabienne Kappeller, and its systems test and support manager, Dennis Connor.

Both suggested that I review previous attempts by bioMérieux to implement systems engineering principles as well as current initiatives in common components and platforms. This led me to focus my capstone work on creating a common product requirements document (PRD), optimizing systems engineering document templates, and developing a proposal for integrating these documents into our product development and design controls process.

The purpose of the PRD was to provide a set of generic requirements that would remain the same across all systems developed. In addition to regulatory requirements, this would include requirements for interfacing with current bioMérieux products and for common architectural components. Because bioMérieux is a global company, a common PRD would allow us to optimize our system development efforts, focus on what is specific to each new product, and transfer knowledge across sites.

With the help of my bioMérieux colleagues, I began examining three current projects from our development sites in the United States, France, and Italy. I evaluated the existing set of product requirements for each project using the following criteria:

Is the requirement at the system level?
What are the system's broad external interactions with people, physical interfaces, functional interfaces, and immaterial factors such as regulatory standards?

Is the requirement design independent?
Are the common product requirements solution-neutral? This criterion centers on function rather than implementation. A requirement at this level should describe what the product should do, not how it should be done.

Is the requirement generic?
Can the requirements be applied to every system as written? For example, if all our products are used in a microbiology lab, they might all have the same generic requirements for decontamination or biohazard waste disposal.

In addition to declaring a generic requirement, it also might be helpful to consider if a requirement is reusable—that is, the requirement in its basic form is the same from product to product, but requires value adaptation from one system to another. All systems might have an operating environment requirement, for example, but the temperature range could vary.

Does the requirement relate to the usability aspects of the system?
Usability includes characteristics that establish effectiveness, efficiency, ease of user learning, and user satisfaction.

Is the requirement SMACC-able?
For the last criterion, the requirements are evaluated to see if they are:
  • Specific: unambiguous and understandable, having only one interpretation or meaning
  • Measurable: defined in quantifiable terms that can be verified or validated by an objective method of analysis, inspection, or testing
  • Attainable: achievable with existing technologies or demonstrated as feasible through research of new technologies
  • Consistent: not in conflict with any other requirement
  • Complete: all elements are identified, adequately defined, and can be approved for use in subsequent design activities
Table 1 shows the requirements count for each project and reveals the need for commonality. Through my analysis, I was able to identify 150 generic requirements. In the future, I plan to work toward better aligning bioMérieux's requirements procedure with the system engineering guidelines of the International Council on Systems Engineering.
Click for larger image
Table 1. The requirements count for each project examined illustrates the need for some commonality and more efficiency.

While working on the common PRD, I also collaborated with system engineering leaders at bioMérieux to create a documentation structure for development projects. This was an area in which I turned to the system architecture principles that I learned from MIT Professor Edward F. Crawley. Most bioMérieux products consist of a biologic disposable, application PC software, and instrument hardware and firmware. These three areas often are referred to as the subassemblies or components of the system. Defining what levels of documentation are required for each is helpful to project planning, verification and validation planning, and traceability. 
Click for larger image
Figure 1. This chart shows what documents are required for each level of the system as well as which ones will serve as inputs to verification and validation testing. This documentation structure help development sites to speak the same language in terms of planning, traceability, usability, and risk analysis.
The documentation structure that I developed shows which documents are required for each level of the system as well as which documents will serve as inputs to verification and validation testing. It will be used across development sites to improve communication around planning, traceability, usability, and risk analysis.

Having completed SDM's one-year Graduate Certificate Program in Systems and Product Development this past summer, I am looking forward to applying the systems engineering methods I learned to product development at bioMérieux. Now that we have a common PRD and an agreed-upon documentation structure, my colleagues and I can work on updating documentation templates to provide guidance for creating requirements, specifications, and test guidelines. Once these are in place, we will be able to map the documentation deliverables and guidelines to our design control and product development process. I plan to present this work to our quality and project management organization this fall.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Systems Thinking Fuels High-Velocity Organizations

By Steven Spear, Senior Lecturer, MIT Engineering Systems Division

Editor's note: The author of The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition, Steven Spear has taught Creating High-Velocity Organizations at MIT since 2006.

Steven Spear
Companies that are in the same industry, use the same basic technology, and address the same market needs can nevertheless exhibit huge disparities in performance. Consider Honda vs. Chrysler, for example, or Intel vs. Advanced Micro Devices. Through a combination of low cost, efficiency, timeliness, and responsiveness, some companies just perform more efficiently.

In the course Creating High-Velocity Organizations, an elective offered in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program, students examine how and why some companies succeed while others fail through written and video case studies, lectures, and in-class simulations. Examples center on heavy and high-tech manufacturing, new product development and manufacturing, healthcare, and the military.

One case, for instance, involves a high-level system collapse in healthcare. The students watch a video dramatization involving a foreign-born couple that goes to the hospital to deliver a baby, but runs into trouble. Through a series of seemingly inconsequential events (including a mislaid sticky note), the provision of care breaks down with dire consequences.

The emotional content of the video makes the lesson stick, which is important because SDM students, by and large, will become leaders who create value through the hearts and minds of others. They need to understand the ripple effects of their decisions.

To bring home the lessons of the class, students begin by picking a mission-critical process from their past to re-examine. As they progress through the 20 class sessions, they apply each teaching point to this example, developing a strategy for improving the process step by step.

Over the years, students have chosen a wide range of processes to examine—from software engineering to the refurbishment of jet engines—yet invariably, midway through the course, all the students say they can't believe how flawed their original process was.

A major reason so many processes fail is that the systems on which we depend and for which we are responsible have changed from simple and stable to complex and dynamic. Cars, for example, were originally almost entirely mechanical products made of iron and steel. As a result, the number of skills represented in these cars was actually quite small. But manufacturers have since incorporated many new materials and technologies into cars—from aluminum block engines and advanced polymers to advanced computer processors—that require contributions from an ever-expanding number of people and disciplines.

The environment in which cars are manufactured is also vastly more complex today than ever before. Manufacturers rely on an international web of suppliers and face competitors worldwide—all are working to create the next great feature or design. As a result, business is constantly evolving and rapidly moving.

This transition of systems to complex and dynamic characterizes most industries today, and it requires major changes in management. Company leaders need to be able to visualize a system in order to respond to changes nimbly. Students therefore learn the benefits of organizing complex organizations into manageable units at various levels—a concept called "nested compartmentalization."

Using nested compartmentalization makes it possible for one person to visualize and manage the interactions that occur at any level. Think of many eggs within a carton, many cartons in a crate, many crates on a pallet, and many pallets in a truck. The person managing the number of cartons in a crate and how they are packed doesn't need to know all the details necessary to pack the eggs in the carton or the pallets in the truck. That person just needs to know how this specific system integrates into the whole. Nested compartmentalization thus reduces complex systems to layers of simple systems, each of which one person can visualize and therefore manage quickly.

Speed is a critical factor because the complex interconnectedness of today's organizations allows small errors to spiral rapidly into catastrophe. Leaders therefore need to greatly ratchet down the thresholds below which they treat a system aberration as insignificant background noise and above which they react to address the problem. To do this, they must have a clear vision of the system they are managing.

The course touches upon various popular management methodologies—including Total Quality, Six Sigma, and Lean Management. But the emphasis is on the holistic management of systems—particularly of the people in the system—rather than on tools. Students are taught to think methodically about the design of complex systems so that they can encourage exceptional rates of internal improvement and innovation.

The main takeaway is that unless you have a methodical system of design, operation, and improvement, complexity will overwhelm any advantage gained through new technology. If you do have an effective system, enormous competitive advantage can be garnered.

Carina Ting, SDM '11: A Mother Finds Balance Between Family and Engineering

By Cody Romano
Carina Ting
Photo by
Kathy Tarantola Photography
Carina Ting, SDM '11, has improved a variety of systems — from cars to submarines to bulletproof vests — throughout her 20-year career. Yet one of her greatest challenges to date, as a mechanical engineer and as a mother, has been managing the complex system within her own household.

Ting's daughters, who are 9 and 13 years old, might be considered primary stakeholders. Between their school events, trips to the mall, and play dates at friends' houses, logistics alone represents a daunting subsystem. Then there are varying levels of risk and uncertainty, from completing homework assignments to catching the school bus on time.

"It was stressful for me at times to stay in the office knowing that I had kids at home," says Ting, who returned to work as a senior scientist for the Cambridge Collaborative, an engineering research and development company, shortly after her first daughter was born. "Sometimes if there was a meeting that was dragging on at the end of the day, I had to excuse myself."

Even before she became a mother, though, Ting knew that engineering — a predominately male field — could present unique challenges for women. Her mother, an aeronautical engineer, had successfully sued the Navy for gender discrimination after it denied her access to parts of a ship that she needed to visit to complete a project.. Ting's mother also joined the Society of Women Engineers, an advocacy group, while she was in college.

Yet, despite her mother's saga, Ting says that women's issues remained a peripheral concern to her during the early days of her career. She earned her BS in mechanical engineering from MIT during the late 1980s, and then continued her studies with an MS from the University of Washington before joining Cambridge Acoustical Associates. As a professional engineer and researcher for the firm, Ting focused mainly on creating models that provided insights into objects' design and structure.

"When some of my friends heard the word 'Acoustical' in the name of my company, they asked me for free concert tickets," says Ting, laughing. Actually, she worked in a small office with fellow MIT grads scribbling physics equations across chalkboards. During the final few years of the Cold War, the engineer and her team improved US submarines by examining how the ships responded to noise and vibration, key factors in remaining hidden from enemy sonar.

As Ting's career progressed, she expanded her focus on modeling and vibration analysis to include various systems, from passenger cars to the US Navy's advanced surface ships. Although she dealt with a broad range of systems, most of her projects had one thing in common: complexity. She describes some of them as "monster" simulations — that is, tests that involved so many parameters, they depended inevitably on some degree of chance.

Last fall, Ting began searching for graduate schools because she wanted to find better strategies for dealing with the unknown. In addition to learning more about probability and statistics, she wanted to understand how objects — land vehicles, satellites, bulletproof vests — belonged to broader social and economic systems. After considering a handful of top graduate programs, Ting applied to SDM because it was the only one that offered this comprehensive focus, while providing special resources for working mothers.

"In the early stages of my career, I was kind of a lone wolf," Ting says, "but now that I'm a little older and I have kids, I really appreciate the value of women getting together to address the challenges of balancing a family and a career in engineering."

For Ting and many of her female peers in MIT's System Design and Management program, the Women in SDM (WiSDM) group provides a forum to tackle those challenges. They meet each term to discuss solutions, such as daycare programs or advanced online course material, that may afford working mothers enough flexibility to manage both their families and MIT's rigorous coursework.

For her part, Ting has volunteered to help host networking and informational events for women interested in systems. "Since systems design is relatively new, compared to other branches of engineering," she says, "there isn't the same buildup of residual prejudice or biases against women."

Therefore, she adds, women have a unique opportunity to architect the discipline itself, building an all-inclusive culture from the ground up.

Friday, September 16, 2011

SDM Co-founder Thomas Magnanti Previews His Latest Startup: a New University

By Eric Smalley

Thomas L. Magnanti
He's one of 13 MIT Institute Professors, former dean of the School of Engineering and former head of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He co-founded MIT's System Design and Management and Leaders for Manufacturing programs. He was also the founding director of MIT's largest international research center, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). So what is he doing for an encore? How about launching an entire new university?

Thomas L. Magnanti is now president of the newly established Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), a collaboration among Singapore, MIT, and China's Zhegiang University. SUTD addresses many of the world's most pressing problems by focusing on technology and design, said Magnanti.

According to Magnanti, SUTD is well positioned to capitalize on the world's fastest growing economy — Asia — and to become an important research, technology, and learning hub. "It's an opportunity to blend the East and the West, in particular because of where Singapore is located and because it's English-speaking," he explained.

The university's technology and design focus parallels MIT's history. MIT began as a university dedicated to architecture and technology in the emerging American market of the mid-19th century. "In some ways what we're trying to do, as best we can, is re-create MIT for today's world," said Magnanti.

Magnanti is a keynote speaker at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges in October. His talk, "Systems, Design, and Management and the Educational and Research Mission of Today's Universities," will examine how academic institutions should shape their curricula and research agendas to help deal with today's pressing issues. The unique opportunity to build a university from the ground up provides an ideal illustration of the question.

For context, Magnanti points to the National Academy of Engineering's list of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. These 20 items, including electrification, the automobile, aircraft, spacecraft, computers, and the Internet, have dramatically changed the quality of everyone's lives. "Most of the major industries that underlie the US and other economies are based upon those innovations, and many of the items on that list are systems," he said.

More recently, technological advances and globalization have made systems a crucial aspect of the world's major issues. "The world has increasingly recognized the importance of complex technical systems, whether those are energy systems, environmental systems, transportation systems, or healthcare systems.

When Magnanti co-founded SDM 15 years ago, he recognized the need to bring engineering and management together to prepare leaders for the challenges posed by complex systems, for example modernizing the electrical grid or streamlining design and management in the aircraft industry. The goal was to address the many important issues that arise in the world of engineered systems and at the interface between engineering and management, he said. "There was a need to also think carefully about engineering practice within large organizations."

Magnanti noted that while SDM's mission and core curriculum have remained intact over the years, the program has been enriched by added emphasis on leadership, innovation, and systems thinking. "By coupling offerings from MIT's acclaimed engineering and management schools," concluded Magnanti, "SDM continues to offer an unbeatable combination to students and to industry."

Finding a Niche Within SDM's Tech Community

By Cody Ned Romano

Saujanya Shrivastava
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography
Saujanya Shrivastava, SDM '11, is the kind of technology enthusiast who can't browse Facebook without contemplating its underlying source code. In his spare time, he reads blogs about social media and researches the latest digital cameras and mobile phones. "I'll jump at any opportunity," Shrivastava explained, "to learn more about an emerging technology."

The systems and telecommunication engineer, who has nine years of industry experience, has discovered a community of like-minded students in his SDM cohort: mid-career professionals for whom technology is not only part of a job description, but a personal passion.

"My discussions with other tech professionals in SDM are lively and exciting," said Shrivastava. "Even outside of the classroom, we're constantly learning and exchanging ideas." Workshops and lectures, such as a recent talk by Jack Welch (the former CEO of General Electric) provide further networking opportunities. After engaging his peers in discussion, Shrivastava often engages them on MIT's courts and fields. "I'm really inclined towards sports, especially cricket," he said, laughing. "I think it's in my Indian blood."

Shrivastava's engineering career began in northern India, where he earned his engineering undergraduate degree from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). By the time he graduated in 2000, the engineer still yearned to improve his understanding of complex digital systems. To this end, he earned his MS in software engineering from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, with a focus on complex design and software program management.

The systems thinking perspective that Shrivastava Saujanya developed while at Oxford and AMU became critical to him when he encountered a crisis a few years later.

While working as a technical architect for Nokia Siemens Networks, Shrivastava realized that a module within the company's core network, for which he was responsible, had suddenly malfunctioned. If left unchecked, the problem could have had a cascading effect, spreading throughout the entire system. Every minute counted as Shrivastava and his team raced to resolve the issue.

"The core is essentially the brain of any mobile network," Shrivastava explained. Like a brain, Nokia's core network was constantly abuzz with activity, as it routed text messages and phone calls between millions of customers worldwide. "Working within such a large and interconnected system," said the engineer, "we needed to make sure that solving one problem wouldn't cause another."

By isolating the problematic module, then carefully reintroducing it into the larger system, Shrivastava returned the network to its normal state within just a few hours. Applying systems thinking to this case, and several others, the engineer averted crises to achieve a 99.999 percent availability rate. In other words, his system never stopped functioning for more than five minutes in an entire year.

Shrivastava's experience in the tech industry informed his search for graduate schools. Although he considered a handful of top business and technology management programs throughout Europe and the United States, Shrivastava chose SDM because its curriculum blends elements of engineering and management.

"Although I've always had a passion for technology," said Shrivastava, "SDM has given me the confidence and business leadership skills I need to communicate my ideas to clients, as well as co-workers."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Applying SDM Lessons Across Diverse Industries

By Lisa Cratty, SDM '01

Editor's note:
Lisa Cratty, SDM '01, is the director of device research and development for pre-analytical systems at BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), a medical technology company that manufactures medical supplies, devices, laboratory equipment, and diagnostic products.

Lisa Cratty
Ten years have passed since I enrolled in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program. Since then, my career has taken me from the automotive industry to baby products to medical devices. Yet, the systems thinking and skills I learned in SDM have proved highly transferable, helping me to address a variety of challenges in different settings.

Developing a Commonality Strategy for Ford Motor Company

As a student sponsored by Ford, I was inspired by SDM's Technology Strategy class to take a fresh look at the complexity of products the company offered at that time. I had been working on the Ford Explorer, which was nearly identical to two other models Ford had in production, the Mercury Mountaineer and the Lincoln Aviator. The number of different features offered was huge. For example, nine sets of wheels and tires were available among those three cars, and more than 30 different seat combinations were offered among Ford's small cars.

The Technology Strategy class taught me to focus on three key questions: How do you create markets? How do you build an organization to deliver value? And, how do you capture value in the face of competition?

I thought that Ford was going off track by putting money where the customer couldn't see value—such as by offering incrementally different tires and grades of carpeting. My thesis, which I co-wrote with fellow SDM student Matthew Sahutske, argued that the company could optimize its use of components by creating functional units that would serve many different models, rather than creating each vehicle from scratch.

We interviewed more than 100 Ford employees in a range of positions and found the biggest technical challenge was getting engineers to understand that reusing components would not be simple. It can actually be more difficult than starting from scratch, because the components need to integrate into different designs. At the management level, we had to explain the competitive advantage of this kind of restructuring. Reuse can reduce time to market, but it's not the best choice for every company. Because BMW has a niche market, for example, it stands to benefit more from distinguishing features and setting up project teams for each vehicle.

We presented our results to Ford's leadership in 2003. Although I can't say there was a direct connection to the changes that later occurred at Ford, I will say the company is now organized much more along the lines we suggested.

Value Stream Mapping for Lean Engineering at Lear Corporation

As an engineering supervisor at Lear Corporation, a global supplier of automotive seating and interior and electrical systems, I had direct reports for the first time and full responsibility for project management. In this role, systems thinking was even more critical than at Ford, because my job involved designing complex interior systems that had to be integrated into exterior systems provided by other manufacturers.

I relied a lot on the lean engineering lessons taught at SDM by Professor of the Practice of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems Deborah Nightingale. Whenever I needed to present information about costs, timing, or why I needed to involve the manufacturer at a certain point, I would use the value stream mapping skills I learned in her course to present the data behind my decisions. It was very persuasive.

SDM's foundation course in system and project management was also very useful to me at Lear, because I was well equipped to track all the project elements and could always explain exactly where we were on the production timeline.

Quantifying and Mitigating Risk at Evenflo Company

Every product I have worked on has had some sort of human interface. However, parents and babies use Evenflo products, so there was an emotional component for consumers that was new to me. I had to negotiate with marketing colleagues, who wanted products inspired by designs that were bold, colorful, and fun. But from an engineering standpoint, form has to follow function. In addition, the tolerance for risk in these products is very, very low—so low, in fact, that the company tended to be less interested in quantifying and mitigating risk than in sticking to what had worked in the past. That made it very challenging to innovate.

System Architecture, which was taught by Ford Professor of Engineering Edward F. Crawley, proved to be an excellent foundation for my work at Evenflo. I often used TRIZ, a Russian problem-solving and forecasting tool sometimes translated as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, to examine the tradeoffs between possible design solutions—such as a change in size. For assembly, I used risk analysis to weigh the benefits of new features—for example, to consider whether a snap feature instead of a screw would be durable enough to withstand the bouncing of a baby using its new activity center.

Systems Engineering at BD

Today, as the director of device research and development for Preanalytical Systems at BD, I've found that the subsystems I work on are physically much simpler—a needle versus a car—but the overall system is huge. It encompasses patients, healthcare workers, and clinical laboratories that are all trying to come up with accurate diagnoses and corresponding treatments in cases that can be life threatening.

Consider what's involved in simply designing a needle for drawing blood. Factors to be weighed include vein integrity, patient age, and the best way to access the vein. The product also has to be safe and easy for the healthcare worker to use, and it must work every time, without exception. The vial used to collect blood also has to be treated to prevent clotting and must fit into whatever instruments will be used to conduct the testing.

Defining user needs, allocating functionality, decomposing the system, and defining interfaces were all central lessons of SDM's System Architecture course—and these are skills I continually use to make data-driven decisions about our products. I also continue to use what I learned at SDM about lean manufacturing and value-stream mapping. Because it's impossible to tackle everything at once, it's necessary to determine what tasks are most critical.

Many of the system engineering tools I learned at SDM, including Pugh concept selection and House of Quality, are also important here. Often, we have to do several different Pughs because we serve so many different clients. For example, a healthcare worker might like a blood collection tube to have a cap that's easy to remove, while the lab worker might want one that will stay on tight in the testing device. So, we do Pughs from different perspectives to see if we can find a common architecture that meets everyone's needs. Then, we can use a House of Quality diagram to map out what's important to the business and weigh that against the needs of the customer.

Bottom line? Although I graduated from SDM 10 years ago, I continue to rely on the lessons I learned at MIT every day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Systems Thinking in Personalized Medicine

By Eric Smalley

Personalized medicine — the concept of targeting drugs to address an individual's biomolecular makeup — is reshaping drug development at pharmaceutical companies around the world. A key aspect of personalized medicine is the creation of diagnostic tests which can determine whether patients will respond to certain drugs, including how much to take and if the drug is effectively working as intended. The process of developing a new drug and designing its companion diagnostic test is a complicated process in which systems engineering has an opportunity to become standard practice in the pharmaceutical industry.
Devon C. Campbell

In 2008, pharmaceutical giant Novartis set up a diagnostics development unit, Molecular Diagnostics (MDx), within the company's pharmaceutical division demonstrating a systems thinking approach to the parallel development processes. Leading the unit's systems engineering efforts are Michael C. Little, global head of diagnostics development, and Devon C. Campbell, director of engineering and systems.

This October, Little and Campbell will present their approach to designing pharmaceutical diagnostic tests: "Systems Thinking in Personalized Medicine" at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges.

Michael C. Little, PhD
The more we know about an individual's genetic, protein, and metabolic profile, the easier it is for a physician to select the right drugs and dosages to meet the patient's targeted needs. A diagnostic test can inform a physician's determination as to whether a patient is a candidate for a particular drug and what dosage may be appropriate. So the design and development of companion diagnostic tests is becoming a crucial part of developing the drug. "The way the FDA defines this, if your test isn't very good, your drug is sunk," said Little.

Patients, physicians, testing laboratories, drug makers, insurance companies, and government regulators are all stakeholders in the outcome. So it makes sense that pharmaceutical companies would embrace systems thinking, said Little. "It's really the focus today of most diagnostic development," he said.

Incorporating diagnostic development within the pharmaceutical division makes it easier for researchers to share information. Developing a drug and a companion diagnostic test in parallel is inherently complicated because drug development and test development involve very different sets of challenges, said Campbell. "That crafts your whole vision for how you're going about your business from a diagnostics perspective," he said. The challenge is looking at the big picture and being able to optimize it as a system, he said.

Little and Campbell's talk will explore diagnostic development from macro and microscopic perspectives, including the use of system dynamics, with tools like causal loop diagrams and stock and flow diagrams, to paint the big picture. Nothing we do happens in a silo, said Campbell. "Everything is really a feedback system."

If you can map out the feedback system, you can better identify how the impact of one decision can affect other areas, said Campbell. Repeatedly seeing this in action with in vitro diagnostic development "really demonstrated to me the power of holistic and systems thinking," he said.

At stake is the ability to produce new drugs that deliver on the promise of personalized medicine. "I think we're at the forefront of a new era in medicine, and I think the companies that execute well on systems thinking are the ones that are going to win this battle," said Little.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Erika Kutscher, SDM '11: A Family of Female Engineers

By Cody Romano

Erika Kutscher
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography
Growing up in Santiago, Chile, during the late 1980s, System Design and Management (SDM) student Erika Kutscher watched her father, an engineer, wield a wrench over the parts of broken toasters, microwaves, and refrigerators. "He used to fix everything," Kutscher says. "I loved the way he could pick things apart and experiment until he discovered the problem."

Throughout her adolescence, the young woman became increasingly eager to solve household problems by popping open her father's toolbox. She was delighted to receive, as a present for her 17th birthday, an instrument that measured voltage. "There was no question about it," says Kutscher. "I knew then that I wanted to study electrical engineering."

In addition to studying the craft at Pontificia Universidad Católica, one of Chile's premiere universities, Kutscher, who is not only an electrical engineer but an industrial engineer as well, served as a teaching assistant for several classes. Upon graduating in 2007, she joined LAN Airlines as an engineer, attracted to the company by the opportunity to tackle the strategic challenges of one of South America's largest airline alliances and by her passion for planes and travel.

Kutscher considers her story — that of a young woman becoming a globetrotting engineer — to be somewhat uncommon in Chile, despite significant advances toward equal opportunities for women. Yet cultural barriers, however pervasive they may be, have not affected Kutscher's family. Taking after their father, four of her six sisters have pursued careers in engineering. One of them builds hydroelectric plants in France; another works as an environmental engineer in Chile.
SDM student Ericka Kutscher (second from right) with her sisters:
Macarena, Josefina, Constanza, Bernardita, Andrea, and Alejandra.
Constanza and Andrea are environmental and hydraulic engineers
respectively. Bernardita is studying biotechnology engineering.
(Photo courtesy of Erika Kutscher.)
"A cultural attitude in Chile sometimes discourages women from becoming engineers, but the culture is shifting as more women enter the field," says Kutscher. "Right now, at MIT, I see that female engineers are widely accepted, and I hope that within the next five or ten years, more women in Chile will have an opportunity to enroll in programs like SDM."

Part of what inspired Kutscher to apply to MIT was a business trip she made to the Institute while working as a business strategy analyst for route economics at LAN Airlines — a multinational company that coordinates flights among over 10 South American countries. What amazed the engineer most about her first campus visit (apart from the amount of powdery snow covering the icy Charles River) were MIT's state-of-the-art labs and the savvy with which its researchers tackled LAN's logistical issues.

While at LAN Airlines, Kutscher says that each assignment required her to practice systems thinking. For example, in working to optimize the company's Chilean flight route, she needed to think of airports as units in a complex transportation system. She was part of the team that implemented great changes in the Chilean flight route, like unifying the fleet, opening more night flights with cheaper fares, which attracted new passengers, added more premium cargo and increased aircraft utilization.

The natural-born engineer, who developed strategic management skills through her work as a corporate analyst, chose SDM because its curriculum allowed her to improve upon both talents in engineering and management. Her thesis, a work still in progress, will explore risk and uncertainty in decision-making.

Earlier this month, Kutscher and several of her female classmates convened to brainstorm ways of piquing women's interest in SDM — specifically the opportunity to study engineering and management. The discussion was hosted by Women in SDM (WiSDM), a group dedicated to recruiting more women into SDM and in supporting matriculated students and SDM alumnae in work-life balance.

Although her parents and some of her sisters are thousands of miles away, she connects with them by phone, Skype, and email several times each week.

When asked what kind of topics a family of engineers discusses around the dinner table, Kutscher describes the conversation between her and her sisters as typical. "Sometimes we talk about guys and clothes," she said, laughing, "...other times, we talk about engineering."