The move to Systems Engineering

Transitioning from component to system thinking in the standards and conformity community

By Manyphay Viengkham

IEC 2012 Young Professional Leader

Manyphay Viengkham during the IEC Young Professionals workshop 2013 in Delhi Manyphay Viengkham during the IEC Young Professionals workshop 2013 in Delhi

The need to evolve

There is no question that technology is rapidly evolving and with it comes the growth of existing and new systems. The way we think, design, develop, build and maintain the infrastructure and systems around us has to evolve with the technology. This calls for a transition from a component to system mentality, especially in the standards and conformity assessment community.

The transition is not a simple, overnight change; rather it is a culture change that involves the way individuals think, organizational strategy and approaches, guiding leadership, understanding emergent properties, having the appropriate supporting system tools, and lastly, an organizational structure that is adapted for these changes.

Defining systems thinking

Implementing a systems thinking organization starts at the individual member level. Systems thinking has varying definitions but ultimately it comes down to the same core concepts. As Peter Senge defines it, “Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots. It is a set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering and management." [Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline]

In standards development it means understanding how the components of interest fit into the big system structure. It requires understanding the interrelationship between other components from a physical/electrical point of view, as well as information flow and system behaviour change. From a conformity assessment perspective, it also requires understanding how the life of a standard evolves as changes occur at the component and environmental technology surroundings levels. Most importantly, system thinking is the understanding of emergent properties which is described in more detail later.

Developing standards and ensuring conformity requires not only system thinking but a Systems Engineering strategy which provides a systemic and holistic approach across the complete lifecycle of a system.

A Systems Engineering approach

The first step in a Systems Engineering approach is to develop a defined set of objectives and road map. What does the system need to accomplish or fulfil? Typically the second step is to break down the goals into granular and tactical system- and component-level requirements. From a standard development perspective, it means understanding what standards are required to enable such system goals. During the design and development stage of creating a standard it becomes important to understand how the standards impact the system as it evolves over the life of the system. This includes analyzing the expected use cases and non-use cases.

Testing the new approach

After design and development, standards and their application should be tested in various scenarios at a component/interface level and from an end-to-end system perspective. Once these systems are tested they go through a deployment and conformity stage which plugs the system into a larger system of systems and hence the emergence of new system properties. These new system properties are typically unexpected during the design and development stage of the standard development. As mentioned previously, it becomes essential that the standard community identifies these emergent properties and understands the relationship between the set of standards that were put in place and how they are interrelated with the emergent property. This systems approach becomes an iterative process that involves constant feedback between the different processes.

Leadership’s vital role

Within every organization, leadership’s role is crucial in this change process. As mentioned, the initial step in systems engineering is understanding the desired system goals and objectives. Typically this is the role of the leadership team who develops the system objectives and roadmap with a defined strategy. They also provide the vision and concept of operation of the system which includes the defined scope of the system. Clearly identifying the boundaries of the system and its internal components is just as critical as defining the system goals. A system that is either too widely or too narrowly defined can lead to a team working on standards where the objective is lost in the system – because it is too large or the desired system property is not obtainable because the system is too constrained.

Big data and emergent behaviour

The value of a system is in its emergent behaviour or property.  These emergent aspects are not characteristics of any one component but arise from the combination of one or more components.  Emergent properties are not easily predictable especially with large complex systems that are also exposed to other systems.  Component or small system behaviour is easier to predict because the variables and scenarios are manageable. With large complex systems there has to be a new means of analyzing huge amounts of data and understanding the relationship between the data points. 

This new computing approach is commonly referred to as “Big Data”.  Microsoft describes this as “the process of applying serious computing power—the latest in machine learning and artificial intelligence—to seriously massive and often highly complex sets of information.” Large technology and data companies like Google, Oracle, and IBM have practiced this concept for years.  They have the resource and understanding to mine out valuable information about systems which include human and machine behaviour data points. 

Tools of the systems trade

In order to support a “system focused” organization, the right tools also need to be in place. The tools should provide system thinkers with means to collect and analyze system information down to its granular component level but also provide holistic view of the larger system. In order to provide a holistic view that cuts across multiple components and verticals, there needs to be a system library which contains a common set of definitions whether it be components, requirements, functions, architecture, etc. The tools should enable collaboration between multiple component focused groups.

Structural support

Last but not least, an organization transforming into a systems thinking entity needs to have the proper organizational structure, a structure that embraces system thinking across the various silos. In some organizations there are centralized system teams that provide the complete end-to-end system requirements and guidance to the different component teams. There are also de-centralized system teams that are embedded within the different teams and provide such guidance within the team itself. There are various pros and cons but in either approach it is important for every member to have the systems thinking skills.

In summary, transitioning to a “system focused” organization is not an easy overnight task. It requires a big culture change initiative that is implemented over the course of years. Changes in the way individuals think, the strategic approach, leadership, understanding, tools and organizational structure.

About the author

Manyphay Viengkham, from the United States, is a senior systems analyst at General Electric Energy. Her current role is to develop and analyze technical requirements for Smart Grid software as a service for customers, and to architect solutions based on technical requirements and stakeholder needs. She has undergraduate degrees in computer science and biochemistry, an MBA and is completing a Masters in Applied Systems Engineering. Viengkham was elected as an IEC 2012 Young Professional (YP) Leader at the IEC YP – 2012 workshop in Oslo.

Manyphay Viengkham during the IEC Young Professionals workshop 2013 in Delhi Manyphay Viengkham during the IEC Young Professionals workshop 2013 in Delhi
The component approach needs to evolve to a systems approach... The component approach needs to evolve to a systems approach...
...which looks at how the various elements are interrelated, to give the big picture ...which looks at how the various elements are interrelated, to give the big picture