2015 MIT SDM Conference: “Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges”

The 2015 MIT Systems Design & Management Conference took place on October 6 & 7, 2015. The topic hooked me right away with its promise of “Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges”. The flyers added to the ‘doors-will-be-opened’ flavor by underlining that this would be about “A Whole Systems Approach to Product Design and Development”. I was ready.

The first afternoon was introductory. We learned about SDM, which is MIT’s master’s program offered jointly by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management. Pat Hale, Executive Director of SDM talked of “Transformation Through Constructive Change”. He was followed By Matthew Kressky, Director of Integrated Design & Management, on “Integrated Design Approach to Prototyping”. This made for a thought provoking and inspirational start to the event.

The next day had both variety and range. Neal Yanofsky, Chairman of Cheddar’s Cheese Kitchen and Advisor to Snap Kitchen, gave the first keynote. The topic was, “Can Managers Contribute to Design That Creates Competitive Advantage”. Laced with humor, there were many examples of good and bad design and pithy quotes. “Greatness comes as great potential. Some assembly required.” We learned how Cheddar’s assembles onion rings into a tower (despite the extra time that takes) that must melt away many a resolve against fried foods. We saw how a “welcome desk” at a restaurant positioned sideways changes from being a “barrier” to actually welcoming people. We were given examples of what kills good design. This includes statements such as “why don’t you just…” by people lacking your vision, as well as undue emphasis on “testing everything” (although there is place for market research). There was also emphasis on learning to hold opposing views to pulling the right one at the right time. Thus “protect it and abandon it” was said about ideas that are dear to us. “Be open to shortcomings; they can be your strength” was another I recall.

The next keynote was on “Why Digital Health Technologies Are Not Enough: Building Community To Foster Healthier Lifestyles”. Todd Coleman of the University of California, San Diego, was the speaker. He is Associate Professor of Bioengineering, Director of Neural Interaction Laboratory and Co-director of the Center of Perinatal Health at UCSD. There was a fascinating introduction to “epidermal electronics” where the “soft biology” of the skin meets “normally rigid” semiconductor wafers in a new flexible measurement breakthrough.  Biometric information from the skin, including ECG measurements, can now be streamed to external devices. This led to a discussion of data, and how quantifying uncertainty with Big Data is a key problem that Google and Amazon are looking at. On the security front, there was discussion of the paradigm shift when computation is moved away from the cloud to be more local because of increased local computational power. In talking of perinatal health there was discussion of how doctors can receive data from thousands of miles away such as from a pregnant person who is home. Machine predictability of analyzed data is improving, e.g., monitoring heartbeats for action. Movement data to predict Parkinson’s is now possible. Posture classification can yield which postures are injury-prone. The talk moved on to holistic health. Dean Ornish, famous for his approach to reversing heart damage after heart attacks through lifestyle changes, was cited: his belief in the four pillars of Nutrition, Fitness, Stress Management and Love & Support for human wellness. Individual and community efforts at health improvement were hailed: the advantages of wearing health devices, using apps to cut down on eating bad foods, boosting exercise and fitness. Huge savings through prevention are possible. It was noted that many insurance companies are now moving towards paying for wearables. In general sensors and analytics are defining a new frontier for positive change – they have had a major impact on not losing infants to sepsis, for example. But there is a lot still to be learned through meaningful statistics. The impact will continue to grow.

Maria Yang, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, explained “Driving Early Stage Design Through Design Processes”. She talked about 70% of the cost of design being fixed in the first 30% of the cycle. Hence, there was emphasis on sketches and prototypes, especially simple prototypes, for early feedback and change. Ferrari and IBM do this very successfully, where early stage design is more “intent” than “concept”. It was emphasized that “human centered design” must be favored over technology innovation. It is hard to make a bad idea good – it is best to look at “notional designs” and abandon bad ideas early. Once you reach a “research” phase, people can be brought into a lab to test. But the focus of the talk remained on the early stage. “Thinking” sketches for oneself, “prescriptive” sketches for others, and “telling” or “discussion” sketches for collaboration through telling a story were discussed. Quantity, rather than quality of the early ideas is crucial, aided by brainstorming. It doesn’t matter if you are good at drawing or not (most people believe they are not). What matters is more rather than finer sketches and prototypes – they have been shown to lead to better design, while a fixation with say CAD can lead to “perfection fixation” that plateaus out innovation. Overall, of various approaches, low fidelity prototyping seems like the best approach. An example of a remote control design was used to illustrate this. There was an interesting discussion around design of complex engineering systems. While there is a need to integrate and optimize the overall system, teams working separately often just optimize the subsystems. You need strategies to combat this.

Following Ms. Yang, Matt Harper, a pioneer of hydrogen fuel technology and co-founder of Avalon Battery, spoke on, “Conceptualizing and Executing Product design in an Emerging Market”. Matt is a protégé of 16 months of study at SDM. He spoke about how the electrical power industry paradigm has shifted to where two additional elements need to be considered today, beyond just distribution: self-generation and energy storage. He had some provocative statements that he wanted us to consider. “How do you build a product whose market is evolving faster than you are”? “It is easy to confuse appetite for risk with awareness of risk”. His general advice: balance your focus on “now” vs. the future; talk with customers in the language they understand rather than tech-talk; sales and engineering processes have to be integrated to build credibility (keeping them engaged together becomes challenging as you grow); be ready for change and ask, “if changes are needed what would be needed to implement them”. There was discussion of China – how they are today importing gas, coal, etc., and don’t like it. By 2050 they want to solve their energy problem. Finally there was this sobering truth from Matt: “The ROI on the wrong product is nothing”.

At lunch, a quick poll suggested that the diverse attendees got as much out of the morning as I had. On my left were several people from Amazon Robotics; on my right Scrum Doc, a one person Agile shop. Like myself, both parties had found the sessions invigorating. I saw people from Oracle, Saudi Aramco, Bank of America, Analog Devices, GE, Booz Allen… somewhere between 250 and 300 attendees would be my guess.

The afternoon session started with a stellar talk by Steven Eppinger, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at MIT. The topic was, “Improving Decisions in Complex System Development Using Technology Readiness Levels”. TRL was described as the most common metric used for decision making but research has shown that it doesn’t always work. Effort was defined as time plus resources plus persistence. How to plan and manage risk was described as key, and NASA was mentioned as having more degrees of freedom than most companies – they use 14 roadmaps! The importance of using TRLs to assess risk and aligning TRLs was talked about. You should be asking “at what level do I have confidence?” Steven then talked about ongoing research at MIT on TRLs. Fifteen ways have been identified to fix the “TRL challenge” to not fail. The audience was then asked to look at a complex system with TRL identified for various subsystems, and cross-dependencies notes. A vote was taken on the TRL one would assign to the complete system. It came as a surprise how despite having some high TRL sub-systems, because of dependencies and being tested only in isolation, you could validly arrive at a low overall system TRL. The point was made: “architecture matters”. But what to do about low TRLs when there is pressure to move forward? Two ways were suggested: 1) get a “dispensation” to proceed with risks foreseen and accepted; 2) delay the project (or throw more money at it) to deal with the low TRL sub-systems. Timing, performance and finance are always key to using TRL purposefully.

The final talk for the day was to be on “The Creative Process Inside Startups: Best Practices and Lessons Learned”. This was modified by Shaun Modi, co-founder of TM, and early design leader at Airbnb, to “Design for Startups – Integrated Design Management”. Many provocative slides were shown to elicit audience responses to good and bad design. One that stood out for me: how the design of a Segway really looked like it was based on medical equipment. Among points made: a designer is really a therapist for a client. 90% of all designs fail, so keep at it. One must think of all the demographics when thinking of products; the appeal can vary distinctly between different groups of consumers. Finding complementary skill sets is important; engineers and designers must collaborate closely.

I did not stay beyond the wrap-up remarks by Joan Rubin, who is the Industry Coordinator for SDM. After a networking reception, there were to be three hours of SDM Information Sessions but this was more student oriented. As I took leave, I thought about how open and informative and well-planned this SDM conference had been. I am already looking forward to next year’s event!