Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Systems Thinking Conference Highlights Practical Applications in Healthcare, Education, Product Development

By Lois Slavin, SDM Communications Director

Whatever your profession, systems thinking is critical for success in the global economy, according to speakers at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges.

The annual event, sponsored by MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program, drew almost 300 attendees from across MIT and around the world on Oct. 24 and 25. This year's conference, which highlighted SDM's 15th anniversary and featured several SDM alumni speakers who are now senior executives, focused on addressing complexity and innovation in healthcare, education, and product development.

Dr. Katharine Frase, VP Industry Solutions and Emerging
Business, IBM Research, discussed Watson and its
implications for industry and society.
Photo: Dave Schultz, SDM
Speaking live from Moscow, Russia, via remote videoconferencing, keynote presenter and SDM co-founder Edward Crawley first defined systems in order to give attendees a common understanding of the term. "A system is a set of interrelated entities that perform a function," said Crawley, the Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The function that emerges, he said, is greater than what could come from any single entity — and the overall system's "emergent properties" are what produce value.

Crawley then explained that systems thinking is a way of looking at problems in context, in order to more successfully predict what will emerge to ensure value. "This is the real art and the real goal of systems thinking — training yourself in the domain in which you work to look at an unprecedented system, predict outcomes, and add value," Crawley said. In essence, using systems thinking helps make complex challenges less complicated.

Several speakers subsequently outlined complex challenges in healthcare. In Tuesday's keynote, Dr. Julian Goldman, who directs the Program on Medical Device Interoperability at Massachusetts General Hospital, described some of the problems hospitals have in managing incompatible medical devices.

The result, Goldman explained, is that most medical devices are not interoperable and cannot be synchronized or networked. This can cause "alarm fatigue" in medical professionals who must monitor multiple devices simultaneously, often while managing a medical crisis. The consequences can be dire. "We have many well-reported incidents of adverse results and patient deaths due to alarm fatigue," he said.

Goldman believes that the root of this problem is the failure of manufacturers to consider each device as part of a wider system. A main reason is the complexity involved in developing devices that connect to those produced by other manufacturers, because this would complicate a wide range of considerations at every level of the system, from user instructions to liability.

Other conference speakers highlighted applications and the need for systems thinking in fields as diverse as aeronautics, engine control, flu prevention, and food safety.

For example, John Helferich, SDM '10, former senior vice president of R&D for Mars Inc. and currently a PhD student in MIT's Engineering Systems Division, noted that although thousands of deaths from food-borne illnesses occur annually in the United States, the food industry does not have consistent safety standards along the supply chain from farm to table. "Think about all the things we do to fly safely," he said. "We don't have that stringency in food safety."

A panel titled "Watson, Analytics, and the Implications for Industry and Society" brought together IBM Vice President Katharine Frase, SDM alumnus and Bank of America executive Doug Hague, and healthcare consultant David Hartzband, who discussed computing in banking and healthcare.

The conference also emphasized education, from MIT Professor Richard Larson's discussion of technology-enabled learning around the world to new universities launching in Singapore and Moscow led by SDM co-founders and conference keynotes Institute Professor Thomas L. Magnanti and Crawley.

"The need is for people who understand systems and people who understand information technology," said Magnanti, the founding president of Singapore University of Technology and Design, which will open in April. "Future success will depend on educating more people in systems thinking."

Visit sdm.mit.edu to view videos of presentations delivered at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges.

Next year's conference will be held at MIT on Oct. 22 and 23, 2012.

Armando Hurtado, SDM '11: Managing the Complexity of Global Products

By Eric Smalley

Armando Hurtado
Photo by
Kathy Tarantola Photography
At first glance, you might think that someone who sells diapers has little need for systems thinking. Look a little closer and you'll see that in today's world of global brands, localized markets, and globalized supply chains, a deceptively simple object like a package of Pampers embodies a wealth of complexity.

Armando Hurtado's seven years in product development at Procter & Gamble have taught him that developing global products involves a host of challenges that the term "supply chain" only begins to hint at. Hurtado, SDM '11, is a senior engineer in product development. He worked on Pampers for emerging markets and now works on Gillette razors for Latin America and Asia.

One of Hurtado's tasks is cost engineering to make the products affordable in developing countries. He has to ensure that his global suppliers are not only inexpensive but will remain inexpensive for at least three years. This involves assessing political stability and currency exchange issues, as well as the usual measures of good suppliers.

Hurtado also analyzes consumer needs to tune products for different markets. He has to find the right balance between producing products that appeal to both the Brazilian and Turkish markets, for example, and producing products that can be aimed at different markets without reinventing the wheel for each one.

The key is thinking in terms of product platforms. "You're not just designing a product, you also need a manufacturing technology for that product," Hurtado said. "Plus, you need that manufacturing technology to be flexible enough to be able to change and make products that you don't even know you're going to need."

The complexity of managing a global product platform isn't well understood, which is a key reason Hurtado came to SDM. "I saw that in order to progress as a good technical leader, I needed to learn so much more than what I could just get from work experience."

Hurtado was looking for a program that linked business and engineering, and that could expand on his engineering training to help him manage complexity. He was also looking for a program that could help him reach his ultimate goal: becoming a CTO or vice president of research and development. "I saw that SDM was unique in that," he said.

The SDM program has given Hurtado tools that he's able to bring back to his job. He's been able to use statistical tools for predicting a design's robustness, and he's learned techniques for managing large complex projects. And simply being at MIT has helped him keep up with new technologies and trends, he said.

Being able to continue working while in the SDM program is a major advantage. "I didn't have to quit everything I was doing for a year or two," said Hurtado. "I'm still very much involved with my work. I love developing products and bringing them to market. And I plan to continue to do that in a leadership position, and influence the product development chain for Procter & Gamble," he said.