Thinking about Systems
Wednesday, April 27, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
I recently attended a meeting of the Michigan chapter of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). A relatively new professional society (founded in 1990), INCOSE defines their discipline of Systems Engineering as “an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.” They recognize that engineering problems are not purely technical in nature but also involve much broader constraints such as cost, schedule, and operational issues.
Systems engineering tries to draw the box large enough to truly solve the problem at hand. The envelope defining “the system” will always be larger than the science, math, and technical content. It will range across the whole spectrum of socio-cultural aspects because the problems we solve are human problems and thus multidimensional and complex. A good design process will attempt to identify all the factors that influence a new technology design and all the variables that may in turn be affected by the introduction of that new product. This is no trivial task! The physical factors are perhaps the easiest. One can perform an analysis of variance (such as the ANOVA statistical technique) to characterize the most important factors that influence a desired outcome, though some factors may be well known, such as the influence of automobile weight on gas mileage. Even here, the engineer or scientist can only characterize the variables that she has named. Creativity and wisdom are required to tease out all the important influences.
The more challenging factors are not physical but socio-cultural. The psychology and sociology of driver behavior that influences gas mileage can be complex. Consider the thrill of acceleration that tempts us to toss mileage to the wind or the subtle influence of the enclosed and thus isolated interior space of a vehicle that somehow lowers our inhibition against rage on the road. One would think we could predict these effects because they often seem to be common sense outcomes – at least in hindsight. One would think that we all would have realized that the advent of ubiquitous text messaging among teens would lead to student cheating by the use of this communication technology during a test. But many teachers were caught unaware and surprised by this development.
Many engineers and scientists chose their career because of the attraction of discovery and invention. Christians can certainly participate in this joy because it enables us to appreciate the creative wonder of our God more fully. If our work enhances that “vertical” relationship, there is another aspect that is more about the “horizontal” relationships to the rest of creation. We serve our fellow humans by solving problems with technology. Making a difference in the world via our technical products requires systems thinking in order to truly solve the whole problem. Otherwise we risk optimizing locally (for some subset of stakeholders) without realizing that the overall performance of our solution is sub-optimal (perhaps because we aggravated the situation of stakeholders we failed to recognize).
I’m rather fond of block diagrams as a good way to start the process of describing a problem and proposed solutions because it also serves as communication tool. But drawing a box to define the system inherently neglects whatever is outside that box. Our finite minds often need to reduce the complexity of a system by focusing on only the most significant factors, so building those fences is often necessary. However, let’s take care that we don’t neglect real people – our neighbors – and miss the opportunity to be the Good Samaritan with our technological solutions.