Saturday, October 1, 2011

SDM Thesis Roundup - SDM Pulse Fall 2011

This sampling of SDM thesis research illustrates the range of systems questions that SDM students address. To read these theses in full, contact Joan S. Rubin, SDM industry co-director,, 617.253.2081.

Application of System Safety Framework in the Hybrid Socio-Technical Environment of Eurasia
Author: Azamat Abdymomunov, SDM '10, founder of the Astana Innovation Center
Advisor: Nancy Leveson, PhD, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems
The Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydroelectric Power Station is Russia’s single largest power facility and typically produces about 24.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. A 2009 accident, caused by the failure of a turbine and the flooding that followed, killed 75 people and shut down the plant. This thesis examines the hybrid characteristics that emerged in the vital sector of the planned economy—the electricity sector—and how those characteristics contributed to the accident.
Abdymomunov, a former strategic advisor to the prime minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan, examines some of the root causes of the disaster. He notes that 20 years after splintering into 15 national entities, the Soviet region’s political and social transformation has led to hybrid structures in political, economic, and technological domains. Different institutions and policies, state and private business entities, old and new technologies, and collectivist and individualist value systems coexist. The roles of government, state enterprise, private business, and civil society are not clearly defined.
He argues that the traditional approach to explaining the accident—characterized by a culture of blame, as well as a focus on reliability, responsibility, and modernization—fails to acknowledge systemic causes. The borders of systems change over time, evolving and adjusting to the external environment. In the case of the power station, the reform of Russia’s electricity sector affected station safety and reliability.
 The system theory approach adds a number of elements to the analysis of accidents,
including a look at the context or conditions at work when the accident happened and
an examination of contributing systemic factors.  The approach also incorporates broader
systems and socio-technical concerns into planning to prevent a repeat of a disaster.

Abdymomunov concludes that accidents are complex processes involving the entire sociotechnical system. In the case of the Russian power plant, insufficient capital investment and backlog in maintenance shifts were key systemic factors that allowed organizational behavior to migrate from a safe to an unsafe state.

A Systems Approach to Food Accident Analysis
Author: John Helferich, SDM ‘10, adjunct professor at the College of Business Administration at Northeastern University and a Batten Fellow at the Darden School of the University of Virginia
Advisor: Nancy Leveson, PhD, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems
Food-borne illnesses lead to 3,000 deaths per year in the United States. Some industries, such as aviation, have significantly increased safety through careful accident analyses and follow-up changes in industry practices. In the food industry, however, current methods of accident analysis remain grounded in regulations developed when the industry was far simpler than it is today.
Helferich, the former senior vice president of research and development at Mars Incorporated, explores whether the incidence of food-borne illness could be reduced by changing the method of accident analysis from the current approach to a system theoretic method. Currently, food accident analysis combines epidemiology—to identify and track illnesses to their origin—with a regulatory standards approach that is based on a linear model of accident causation.
Helferich asserts that causal analysis using system theoretic accident modeling processes (CAST) is a better method. CAST is designed to determine how and why accidents occurred by analyzing the control structure of the accident system.
To test whether CAST can provide more comprehensive insights into food system accident causation, Helferich analyzed a case study using both traditional and CAST approaches. The case study chosen is a 2008 outbreak of salmonella linked to the Peanut Corporation of America, which forced the company out of business and significantly drove down sales of peanut butter nationwide
Helferich demonstrates that the application of a system theoretic accident analysis method such as CAST results in more learning than the current method of accident analysis. He concludes that the current food accident analysis system should be augmented with a systems-based approach to identify and control more extensive system hazards.

Platform Project Management: Optimizing Product Development by Actively Managing Commonality
Author: Raúl Pinillos Montaño, SDM ‘09, program management engineer at Ford Motor Company
Advisor: Olivier de Weck, PhD, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems
Product developers continually strive to create better products faster and more cheaply. One way to do that has been to design common parts and create product families, which enables companies to increase profitability by sharing costs among different products. However, managing common designs in a product family is not a trivial task. Over time, product commonality typically decreases, a phenomenon called divergence.
Pinillos proposes a system dynamics methodology to explain the different impacts of divergence on the development projects within a product family. Using a model calibrated via a case study in the automotive industry, he simultaneously simulated lead and derivative projects based on product commonality.
Pinillos measured divergence rates and found they ranged from 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent loss of product commonality every month. Further, he found that this divergence caused significant damage to the product development projects—as high as a 22 percent schedule overrun or a 29 percent increase in personnel needed to achieve the planned project schedule. He reports that these effects grew proportionally to the divergence rate.
Pinillos concludes that actively managing product commonality can be an effective method to achieve a successful execution of the development projects when the product platform approach is utilized. Platform project management, he argues, can ensure that product commonality is achieved throughout the development process by balancing and trading off all the designs among the entire product family rather than by making decisions for each product in isolation.

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