Developing Systems Engineering Capabilities within Businesses and Enterprises

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The pursuit of continuous improvement is a constant for many organizations. The description of Toyota (Morgan and Liker 2006), the Lean principle of “pursue perfection” (Oppenheim et al. 2010), and the principle of “don’t let up” (Kotter 1995), all drive a need for continuous improvement.

The ability to manage teams through their lifecycle - mobilize teams rapidly, establish and tailor an appropriate set of processes, metrics and systems engineering plans, support them to maintain a high level of performance, capitalize acquired knowledge and redeploy team members expeditiously as the team winds down - is a key organizational competence that has substantial leverage on project and organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

The enterprise provides teams with the necessary resources, background information, facilities, cash, support services, tooling, etc. It also provides a physical, cultural and governance environment in which the teams can be effective. The key functions of the enterprise include generating and maintaining relevant resources, allocating them to teams, providing support and governance functions, maintaining expertise and knowledge (on process, application domain and solution technologies), securing the work that teams perform, organizing finance, and maintaining the viability of the enterprise.

For improvements to persist, they must reside in the enterprise rather than just the individuals, so the improvements can endure as personnel leave. This is reflected in the Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) (SEI 2010) progression from a "hero culture" to a "quantitatively managed and optimizing process".

This topic outlines the issues to be considered in capability development and organizational learning.


Figure 1 shows an "analyze - organize - perform - assess - develop" cycle, which is essentially a reformulation of the Deming (1994) PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) cycle. The analysis step should cover both current and future needs, as far as these can be determined or predicted. Goals and performance assessment, as discussed in Assessing Systems Engineering Performance of Business and Enterprises, can be based on a number of evaluation frameworks, such as direct measures of business performance and effectiveness and the CMMI capability maturity models. There is evidence that many organizations find a positive correlation between business performance and CMMI levels (SEI 2010). This is discussed further in the Economic Value of Systems Engineering.

Figure 1. Concept Map for Businesses and Enterprises Topics. (SEBoK Original)

Change Levers

SE managers have a number of possible change levers they can use to develop SE capabilities. The amount of time delay between moving a lever and seeing the effect varies with the type of level, size of the enterprise, culture of the enterprise, and other factors.

Adjust Context, Scope, Purpose, Responsibility, Accountability Business Enterprise

If the other change levers cannot achieve the desired effect, the business or enterprise may have to renegotiate its contribution to the higher level strategy and mission.

Review and Adjust Required Capabilities

In the initial analysis the needed capability may have been over- or under-estimated. The need should be re-evaluated after each rotation of the cycle to make sure the planning assumptions are still valid.

Adjust Organization within Business Enterprise

Adjusting organization and responsibilities so that "the right people are doing the right things", and ensuring that the organization is making full use of their knowledge and skills, is often the easiest change to make (and the one that may have the quickest effect).

A potential risk is that too much organizational churn disrupts relationships and can destabilize the organization and damage performance. Process improvement can be set back by an ill-considered re-organization and can jeopardize any certifications the organization has earned which demonstrate its process capability or performance.

Develop/Train/Redeploy/Get New Resources, Services and Individuals

Resources, services and individuals may include any of the components of organizational SE capability listed in Organizing Business and Enterprises to Perform Systems Engineering.

Levers include subcontracting elements of the work, improving information flows, upgrading facilities, and launching short-term training and/or long term staff development programs. Many organizations consider how they approach these improvements to be proprietary, but organizations such as NASA offer insight on their APPEL website (NASA 2012).

Development of individuals is discussed in Enabling Individuals.

Improve Culture

Culture change is very important, very powerful, but needs to be handled as a long-term game and given long term commitment.

Adjust and Improve Alignment of Measures and Metrics

Measurement drives behavior. Improving alignment of goals and incentives of different parts of the business/enterprise so that everyone works to a common purpose can be a very effective and powerful way of improving business/enterprise performance. This alignment does require some top-down guidance, perhaps a top-down holistic approach, considering the business/enterprise as a system with a clear understanding of how the elements of enterprise capability interact to produce synergistic value (See Assessing Systems Engineering Performance of Business and Enterprises). It is commonly reported that as an organization improves its processes with respect to the CMMI, its approach to metrics and measurement has to evolve.

Change Methods

Doing Everyday Things Better

There is a wealth of sources and techniques, including Kaizen, Deming PDCA (Deming 1994), Lean (Womack and Jones 2003, Oppenheim et al. 2010), Six-Sigma (Harry 1997), and CMMI.

Value stream mapping is a powerful Lean technique to find ways to improve flow and handovers at interfaces.

Managing Technology Readiness

In high-technology industries many problems are caused by attempting to transition new technologies into products and systems before the technology is mature; to make insufficient allowance for the effort required to make the step from technology demonstration to reproducible and dependable performance in a product; or to overestimate the re-usability of an existing product. NASA's TRL (Technology Readiness Level) construct, first proposed by John Mankins in 1995 (Mankins 1995), is widely and successfully used to understand and mitigate technology transition risk. Several organizations beyond NASA, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, even have automation to aid engineers in evaluating technology readiness.

Variations on TRL have even emerged, such as System Readiness Levels (SRL) (Sauser et al. 2006), which recognize that the ability to successfully deliver systems depends on much more than the maturity of the technology base used to create those systems; e.g., there could be surprising risks associated with using two technologies that are relatively mature in isolation, but have never been integrated together before.

Planned Change: Standing Up or Formalizing SE in an Organization

Planned change may include:

  • introducing SE to a business (Farncombe and Woodcock 2009);
  • improvement/transformation;
  • formalizing the way a business or project does SE;
  • dealing with a merger/demerger/major re-organization;
  • developing a new generation or disruptive product, system, service or product line (Christensen 1997);
  • entering a new market; and
  • managing project lifecycle transitions: start-up, changing to the next phase of development, transition to manufacture/operation/support, wind down and decommissioning.

CMMI is widely used to provide a framework for planned change in a systems engineering context. Planned change needs to take a holistic approach considering people (knowledge, skills, culture, ability and motivation), process, measurement and tools as a coherent whole. It is now widely believed that tools and process are not a substitute for skills and experience. Instead, they merely provide a framework in which skilled and motivated people can be more effective. So change should start with people rather than with tools.

Before a change is started, it is advisable to baseline the current business performance and SE capability and establish metrics that will show early on whether the change is achieving the desired effect.

Responding to Unforeseen Disruption

Unforeseen disruptions may be internally or externally imposed. Externally imposed disruptions may be caused by

  • the customer - win/lose contract, mandated teaming or redirection;
  • competitors - current offering becomes less/more competitive, a disruptive innovation may be launched in market; or
  • governance and regulatory changes - new processes, certification, safety or environmental standards.

Internal or self-induced disruptions may include

  • a capability drop-out due to loss of people, facilities, financing;
  • product or service failure in operation or disposal; or
  • strategy change (e.g. new CEO, response to market dynamics, or a priority override).

Embedding Change

In an SE context, sustained effort is required to maintain improvements such as higher CMMI levels, Lean and Safety cultures, etc., once they are achieved. There are several useful change models, including Kotter’s 8 phases of change (Kotter 1995):

  1. Establish a sense of urgency;
  2. Create a coalition;
  3. Develop a clear vision;
  4. Share the vision;
  5. Empower people to clear obstacles;
  6. Secure short term wins;
  7. Consolidate and keep moving; and
  8. Anchor the change.

The first six steps are the easy ones. The Chaos Model (Zuijderhoudt 1990; 2002) draws on complexity theory to show that regression is likely if the short term wins are not consolidated, institutionalized and anchored. This explains the oft-seen phenomenon of organizations indulging in numerous change initiatives, none of which sticks because attention moves on to the next before the previous one is anchored.

Change Management Literature

SE leaders (directors, functional managers, team leaders and specialists) have responsibilities, and control levers to implement them, that vary depending on their organization’s business model and structure. A great deal of their time and energy is spent managing change in pursuit of short, medium and long term organizational goals: “doing everyday things better”; making change happen, embedding change and delivering the benefit; and coping with the effects of disruptions. Mergers, acquisitions and project start-ups, phase changes, transitions from “discovery” to “delivery” phase, transition to operation, sudden change in level of funding, can all impose abrupt changes on organizations that can destabilize teams, processes, culture and performance. Table 1 below provides both the general management literature and specific systems engineering knowledge.

Table 1. Change Management – Business and SE References. (SEBoK Original)
Area Business references SE references
Doing every day things better Kaizen; Lean (Womack and Jones 2003); 6-Sigma (Harry 1997)

Four competencies of Learning Organisation – absorb, diffuse, generate, exploit (Sprenger and Ten Have 1996)

Covey’s seven habits of very effective people (Covey 1989)


Forsberg & Mooz, Visualizing project management (Forsberg and Mooz 2005)

INCOSE IEWG "Conops for a Systems Engineeriing Educational Community" (Ring and Wymore 2004)

INCOSE Lean Enablers for SE (Oppenhein et al. 2010)

Dealing with unplanned disruption Mitroff, managing crises before they happen (Mitroff and Anagnos 2005);

Shell, Scenario Planning (Wack 1985; Ringland 1988)

Scott Jackson, architecting resilient systems (Jackson 2010)

Design principles for ultra-large-scale systems (Sillitto 2010)

Driving disruptive innovation Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen 1997)

Mintzberg “Rise and fall of strategic planning”, (Mintzberg 2000)

BS7000, Standard for innovation management (BSI 2008)

Exploiting unexpected opportunities Mintzberg, rise and fall of strategic planning (Mintzberg 2000)

Mission Command (military), Auftragstechnik (Bungay 2002, 32)

Architecting for Flexibility and Resilience (Jackson 2010)

Open system architectures;

Lean SE; (Oppenheim et al. 2010)

Agile methodologies

Implementing and embedding planned change Kotter’s eight phases of change (Kotter 1995),

Berenschot’s seven forces (ten Have et al. 2003)

Levers of control (Simons 1995) – tension between control, creativity, initiative and risk taking

Chaos model, “complexity theory applied to change processes in organisations”; (Zuiderhoudt and Ten Have 1999)

Business Process Re-engineering (Hammer and Champy 1993)

Senge’s 5th discipline (Senge 2006)

Change Quadrants (Amsterdam 1999)

"Doing it differently - systems for rethinking construction" (Blockley and Godfrey 2000)

INCOSE UK Chapter Z-guides:

  • Z-2, introducing SE to an organisation (Farncombe and Woodcock 2009);
  • Z-7, Systems Thinking (Godfrey and Woodcock 2010)
Understanding peoples’ motivation, behaviour Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator;

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) (See for example: Knight 2009)

Socio-technical organisation (Taylor and Felten 1993)

Core quadrants, (Offman 2001)

INCOSE Intelligent Enterprise Working Group – “enthusiasm”, stretch goals (Ring and Wymore 2004)

Sommerville, Socio Technical Systems Engineering, Responsibility Mapping (Sommerville et al. 2009)

Understanding culture Cultural Dimensions, (Hofstede 1994)

Compliance Typology (Etzione 1961)

Helping individuals cope with change 5 C’s of individual change, and Rational/emotional axes, Kets De Vries, quoted in “key management models” (Ten Have et al. 2003) Relationships made easy (Fraser 2010) – rational/emotional, NLP and other methods


Works Cited

Blockley, D. and P. Godfrey. 2000. Doing It Differently – Systems For Rethinking Construction. London, UK: Thomas Telford, Ltd.

Bungay, S. 2002. Alamein. London, UK: Aurum press. First published 2002, Paperback 2003.

BSI. 2008. Design Management Systems. Guide to Managing Innovation. London, UK: British Standards Institution (BSI). BS 7000-1:2008.

Christensen, C. 1997. The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard Business School Press.

Covey, S.R. 1989. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Also released as a 15th Anniversary Edition (2004). New York, NY, USA: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Deming, W.E. 1994. The New Economics. Cambridge, MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Centre for Advanced Educational Services.

Etzione, A. 1961. A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations. On Power, Involvement and their Correlates. New York, NY, USA: The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc.

Farncombe, A. and H. Woodcock. 2009. "Enabling Systems Engineering." Somerset, UK: INCOSE UK Chapter. Z-2 Guide, Issue 2.0 (March 2009). Accessed September 14, 2011. Available at

Forsberg, K. and H. Mooz. 2005. Visualizing Program Management, Models and Frameworks for Mastering Complex Systems, 3rd ed. New York, NY, USA: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Fraser, D. 2010. Relationships Made Easy: How To Get on with The People You Need to Get on With...and Stay Friends with Everyone Else. Worcestershire, UK: Hothive Publishing.

Godfrey, P. and H. Woodcock. 2010. "What is Systems Thinking?" Somerset, UK: INCOSE UK Chapter, Z-7 Guide, Issue 1.0 (March 2010). Accessed on September 7, 2011. Available at

Hammer, M. and J.A. Champy. 1993. Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. New York, NY, USA Harper Business Books.

Harry, M.J. 1997. The Nature of Six Sigma Quality. Schaumburg, IL, USA: Motorola University Press.

Hofstede, G. 1984. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Newbury Park, CA, USA and London, UK: Sage Publications Inc.

Jackson, S. 2010. Architecting Resilient Systems: Accident Avoidance and Survival and Recovery from Disruptions. A. P. Sage (ed.). Wiley Series in Systems Engineering and Management. New York, NY, USA: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Knight, S. 2009. NLP at Work - Neuro Linguistic Programming - The Essence of Excellence, 1st edition 1995. 3rd edition 2009. London, UK and Boston, MA, USA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Kotter, J. 1995. "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail". Harvard Business Review. (March-April 1995).

Mintzberg, H. 2000. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson Education.

Mitroff, I. and G. Anagnos. 2005.Managing Crises Before They Happen: What Every Executive and Manager Needs to Know about Crisis Management. New York, NY, USA: AMACOM Press.

Morgan, J. and J. Liker. 2006. The Toyota Product Development System: Integrating People, Process and Technology. New York, NY, USA: Productivity Press.

NASA. 2012. "APPEL: Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership." Accessed on September 9, 2012. Available at

Offman, D.D. 2001. Inspiration and Quality in Organizations, (Original title (Dutch): Bezieling en kwaliteit in organisaties), 12th Edition. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Kosmos-Z&K.

Oppenheim, B., E. Murman, and D. Sekor. 2010. Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering. Systems Engineering. 14(1). New York, NY, USA: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Ring, J. and A.W. Wymore (eds.) 2004. Concept of Operations (conops) of A Systems Engineering Education Community (SEEC). Seattle, WA, USA: INCOSE Education Measurement Working Group (EMWG), INCOSE-TP-2003-015-01.

Ringland, G. 1998. Scenario Planning: Managing for the Future. New York, NY, USA: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Sauser, B., Verma, D., Ramirez-Marquez, J. and Gove, R. 2006. From TRL to SRL: The Concept of System Readiness Levels. Proceedings of the Conference on Systems Engineering Research (CSER), Los Angeles, CA.

SEI. 2010. Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) for Development, version 1.3. Pittsburgh, PA, USA: Software Engineering Institute (SEI)/Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Senge, P.M. 2006. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 2nd ed. New York, NY, USA: Doubleday/Currency.

Simons, R. 1995. Levers of Control, How Managers Use Innovative Control Systems to Drive Strategic Renewal. Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Business School Press.

Sillitto, H. 2010. "Design Principles for Ultra-Large Scale Systems." Paper in 20th Annual International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) International Symposium. 12-15 July 2010. Chicago, IL, USA. (Reprinted in The Singapore Engineer, IES, April 2011).

Sommerville, I., R. Lock, T. Storer, and J.E. Dobson. 2009. "Deriving Information Requirements from Responsibility Models. Paper in the 21st International Conference on Advanced Information Systems Engineering (CAiSE). June 2009. Amsterdam, Netherlands. p. 515-529.

Sprenger, C. and S. Ten Have. 1996. "4 Competencies of a Learning Organisation." (Original title (Dutch): Kennismanagement als moter van delerende organisatie), Holland Management Review, (Sept–Oct): 73–89.

Taylor, J.C.and D.F. Felten. 1993. Performance by Design: Sociotechnical Systems in North America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Formerly Prentice Hall, Pearson Education Ltd.

ten Have, S., W.T. Have, F. Stevens, and M. van der Elst. 2003. Key Management Models - The Management Tools and Practices That Will Improve Your Business. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson Education Ltd. (Formerly Prentice Hall).

Wack, P. 1985. "Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead." Harvard Business Review. (September-October 1985).

Womack, J. and D. Jones. 2003. Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, Revised Edition. New York, NY, USA: Simon & Schuster.

Zuiderhoudt, W. and B. Ten Have. 1999. Complexity Theory Applied to Change Processes in Organisations.

Primary References

Kotter, J. 1995. Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. (March-April 1995).

Oppenheim, B., E. Murman, and D. Sekor. 2010. Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering. Systems Engineering. 14(1). New York, NY, USA: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

SEI. 2010. Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) for Development, version 1.3. Pittsburgh, PA, USA: Software Engineering Institute (SEI)/Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Senge, P.M. 2006. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 2nd ed. New York, NY, USA: Doubleday/Currency.

Additional References


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