Throughout my professional career, I have worked at three different companies, each specializing in systems engineering. Ironically, I have found that even though systems has been the focus of each company, I didn’t find a true “systems” emphasis until I joined Vitech. As the VP of Professional Services (and my boss), Zane Scott, likes to put it, that requires a “focus on understanding systems and working from the perspective of that understanding.” A company true to the “systems” in “systems engineering” will manage the organization as a system itself, being deliberate and tactical regarding the management of the organization, and applying systems engineering principles ensuring organizational success. Below are five of the many systems engineering practices key to successfully engineering an organizational system:
1)Identify Your Mission
To me, this is the most important lesson I have learned to apply to an organization through my systems engineering practice. Working at Vitech has opened my eyes to the importance of clearly identifying a mission for your organization. Just like engineering a traditional system, a clear definition of the organizational mission will provide a foundational guide in the establishment of the company objectives and will govern all decision-making within the organization. Every employee needs to have a clear understanding of the company objectives, and most importantly, each needs to buy into the mission of the company, because even at an individual level, every decision made within should be made with the mission in mind. Identification with the mission will inspire passion, establish a clear organizational path, and will communicate to your stakeholders what sets your company apart from the competition.
2)Keep the Systems Perspective
A systems engineer’s job is to always keep the system in perspective. We have to be able to see the forest for the trees, even in the midst of diagnosing a detailed design problem. We have to consider the positive and negative impact a design decision will have on the system. In an organization, it is the same. Collectively, we are a system that can produce results that none of us can produce alone. When we make decisions for our company, for our teams, for ourselves, we have to do it with the system in mind. If one of us breaks, the system breaks. So, when choosing your employees, choose them wisely. When making decisions regarding processes or benefits, or even what coffee to serve in the morning, do so with the system in mind. If we can set aside our personal professional agendas, if we believe in the power of the system effectiveness to achieve the organizational mission, then the system, our organization, is capable of achieving great success, of being even greater than anticipated, but if and only if, we are able to keep the systems perspective.
3)Manage Your Interfaces
David Long, president of Vitech, says about systems engineering, “the interesting things are in the gaps.” Often, we find that managing those gaps, the interfaces, between the components of our system is challenging at best. When managing interfaces, you are defining, controlling, and communicating the information that is needed in order to enable two objects to function. It requires early interface identification, management planning, clear communication, defined ownership, and accountability on each side of the interface.
In managing an organization this is especially true and can become quite challenging. Each group within the organization has a specific job, or grouping of jobs, that needs to be performed. Operations is in charge of operating business processes, whereas business development is in charge of acquiring new accounts to sustain the business. While each one has its own purpose, in order to successfully perform their functions, they must interface with each other to accept inputs, produce outputs, and to ensure that adequate resources are available for optimal operation.
As is the case with most systems, the organizational system interfaces are difficult to manage. In organizations, the breakdown of the interfaces is usually due to internal miscommunication. Frequently, the miscommunication is due to one or more several common communication issues. A lack of understanding of what should be communicated, a lack of effective leadership within the organization, a feeling of competition between groups, poorly defined requirement of the need for co-functionality, or even just a language barrier can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Whatever the issue, it is critical that it is resolved.
Just as with any system that we engineer, the groups within our organization must have clearly defined interfaces, with both an understanding of the critical nature of interoperability, and an understanding of who is the service and who is the provider. If these internal organizational interfaces are broken, the system cannot perform.
4)Design for Redundancy
When engineering a system, it is important to ensure there is no single point of failure. Our systems need to be redundant, providing duplication of critical functions and components, and increasing system reliability in the case of failure. This is also true within our organization system. A single point of failure within our organization will inevitably break the organizational effectiveness once the failure is realized. Ensuring organizational redundancy is not to be had by simply duplicating roles within the organization, it is created by people consulting with each other, holding one another accountable, providing checks and balances, and asking critical questions. Instead of having two people duplicate each other’s functional roles, organizations need people with different backgrounds in somewhat different roles, providing diversity, but allowing for the roles to overlap when needed. This tight coupling will enable open communication and will eventually result in short communication lines, making the organization more effective and more reliable. If one part of the coupling fails, the other half can pick up the slack and the organization can function effectively, even when a component is not operational. This method will avoid duplication but will provide options in the face of uncertainty, making the organization more effective because even when one component of the system fails, the entire system can continue to function.
5)Verify and Validate
One of the most important, and often overlooked, domains of systems engineering is system verification and validation. To verify a system, we are confirming that we have designed the system based on the system design specification, ensuring that the product was “built right.” To validate the system, we are ensuring that we built the right product, based on our customer’s needs. In an organization, we must verify that each team is performing as required based on its specified roles or functions. Frequently an organization will assess an individual’s and team’s performance annually during performance reviews. However, a more incremental approach is recommended to allow for realignment of tasks and tactics so the effectiveness and suitability of the individual and team can be assessed and adjusted for optimal performance. Also, management should consider a means of providing continuous feedback, so activities and roles can be tweaked incrementally, preventing misunderstanding of expectations and requirements.
To validate the organizational design, we should assess whether the performance is aligned for achievement of the organizational mission. A high-functioning organization continually exchanges feedback among its components to ensure that they remain closely aligned and are focused on achieving the goal of the organization. If any of the activities are misaligned, then we must make necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve the mission. The incremental assessment of the alignment will allow for earlier identification of problems, quicker diagnosis, and a prescription for a path forward to redirect our efforts for mission success.
Applying systems principles in managing your organization will ensure that the organization is aligned and can optimally function, ultimately preparing for organizational success. By following these five systems engineering principles: identifying the mission, keeping the systems perspective, managing the interfaces, designing for redundancy, and verifying and validating, we can claim that not only are we experts at systems engineering, but we are truly a “systems company.”