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Agile SE Part Zero: Overview

“Agile” is the latest buzzword in systems engineering. It has a fair share of both adherents and detractors, not to mention a long list of companies offering to sell tools, training, and coaching. What has been lacking is a thoughtful discussion about when agile provides value, when it doesn’t, and how to adapt agile practices to be effective in complex systems engineering projects.

I don’t claim this to be the end-all guide on agile systems engineering, but hope it will at least spark some discussion. Please comment on the articles with details from your own experiences. If you’re interested in contributing or collaborating, please contact me at benjamin@engineeringforhumans.com, I’d love to add your voice to the site.

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Human Factors Design Drives System Performance

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Human performance is a major factor in overall system performance
  • Humans are increasingly the bottleneck for system performance
  • Human factors engineering design drives human performance and thus system performance

Why care about humans?

In many system development efforts, the focus is on the capabilities of the technology: How fast can the jet fly? How accurately can the rifle fire?

We can talk about the horsepower of the engines and the boring of the rifle until the cows come home, but without a human pressing the throttle or pulling the trigger, neither technology is doing anything. A major mistake many systems engineering efforts experience is neglecting the impact of the human on the performance of the system.

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The Swiss cheese model: Designing to reduce catastrophic losses

Failures and errors happen frequently. A part breaks, an instruction is misunderstood, a rodent chews through a power cord. The issue gets noticed, we respond to correct it, we clean up any impacts, and we’re back in business.

Occasionally, a catastrophic loss occurs. A plane crashes, a patient dies during an operation, an attacker installs ransomware on the network. We often look for a single cause or freak occurrence to explain the incident. Rarely, if ever, are these accurate.

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It’s time to get rid of specialty engineering: A criticism of the INCOSE Handbook

Chapter 10 of the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook covers “Specialty Engineering”. Take a look at the table of contents below. It’s a hodge-podge of roles and skillsets with varying scope.

Table of contents for the Specialty Engineering section of the INCOSE handbook.
Table of contents for the Specialty Engineering section of the INCOSE handbook.

There doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to this list of items. Training Needs Analysis is a perfect example. There’s no doubt that it’s important, but it’s one rather specific task and not a field unto itself. If you’re going to include this activity, why not its siblings Manpower Analysis and Personnel Analysis?

On the other hand, some of the items in this chapter are supposedly “integral” to the engineering process. This is belied by the fact that they’re shunted into this separate chapter at the end of the handbook. In practice, too, they’re often organized into a separate specialty engineering group within a project.

This isn’t very effective.

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The Boeing 737 Max crashes represent a failure of systems engineering

The 737 is an excellent airplane with a long history of safe, efficient service. Boeing’s cockpit philosophy of direct pilot control and positive mechanical feedback represents excellent human factors1. In the latest generation, the 737 Max, Boeing added a new component to the flight control system which deviated from this philosophy, resulting in two fatal crashes. This is a case study in the failure of human factors engineering and systems engineering.

The 737 Max and MCAS

You’ve certainly heard of the 737 Max, the fatal crashes in October 2018 and March 2019, and the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which has been cited as the culprit. Even if you’re already familiar, I highly recommend these two thorough and fascinating articles:

  • Darryl Campbell at The Verge traces the market pressures and regulatory environment which led to the design of the Max, describes the cockpit activities leading up to each crash, and analyzes the information Boeing provided to pilots.
  • Gregory Travis at IEEE Spectrum provides a thorough analysis of the technical design failures from the perspective of a software engineer along with an appropriately glib analysis of the business and regulatory environment.

Typically I’d caution against armchair analysis of an aviation incident until the final crash investigation report is in. However, given the availability of information on the design of the 737 Max, I think the engineering failures are clear even as the crash investigations continue.

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System lexicons and why your project needs one

A system lexicon is a simple tool which can have a big impact on the success of the system. It aligns terminology among technical teams, the customer, subcontractors, support personnel, and end users. This creates shared understanding and improves consistency. Read on to learn how to implement this powerful tool on your program.

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An Engineering Touchstone to Enable Successful Designs

Successful systems are created by engineers who understand and design to the ultimate objectives of the project. When we lose sight of those objectives we start making design decisions based on the wrong criteria and thus create sub-optimal designs. Scope creep, group think, and simple convenience are frequent causes of this type of variation. An effective design assessment tool is a touchstone by which we can evaluate the effectiveness of ongoing design decisions and keep the focus on the optimal solution.

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