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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


The importance of thinking

By Ian Raper, on 26 June 2014

Yesterday I had another opportunity to deliver my course on Developing the Engineering Management Plan for Complex Systems Projects and, in discussion with the delegates, it has once again reinforced for me the importance of thinking in the early stages of projects.

It seems that my own experience is echoed by others that too often the detailed planning of the engineering activities consists of getting the plan for the last project off the shelf, updating it to reflect the new project and then putting it back on the shelf. Of course that is a very wide broom I’m using and I am aware that there are shades from no planning to very detailed planning that happen in industry.

When you consider that around 80% of the final project costs are committed in the first 20% of engineering activity you would expect that more effort would be put into planning how to make best use of those early activities.

The problem is that this means

  • thinking through the entire lifecycle of the system you’re designing, from cradle to grave
  • working out all the risks to success that might hit you along the way
  • figure out what you need to do to reduce or remove those risks
  • work out whether you can do those things given the constraints of your project, and if you can’t then figure out what residual risk your project carries
  • understand what value each activity is adding to move you towards success, which means understanding the principle behind doing the activity
  • understand how all the activities interrelate and how they sit in the wider business context (the project is a system too with functions and interfaces so needs to be understood in the same way)
  • figuring out the methods and tools you’ll need to do the activity and the skills of the people required to deliver the desired outcomes
  • and then working out how to measure progress, not in terms of deliverables (like the system requirements document) but in terms of real outcomes (such as the quality of the system requirements).
  • and a bunch of other stuff too…

Which is a lot of thinking. But if you don’t do this then really you’re walking blindly into your project with wishful thinking that everything will be OK.

Then you need to re-evaluate and update the plan at least at every major review point. It’s like a navigation plan. Events will blow you off course and you need way-points to check whether you’re still on track or need to adjust your plan to reach your goal.

The development of the Engineering Management Plan is also a great opportunity to build a shared understanding of the project with the team. Used intelligently the plan should greatly ease the journey of design and development of complex systems.