An Overview of Lean Systems Engineering
What Is Lean Systems Engineering?
Systems engineering is the design, creation and maintenance of complex systems. Systems engineering tends to refer to computer programs, mainframes, controllers, sensors, remote devices and the networks that control them, either wirelessly or cables.
Lean engineering refers to the principle of deliberate simplification of designs. This can reflect the consolidation of a hundred parts into 20 multifunctional parts, reducing the number of steps to build the product, streamlining the code that runs it or a combination of all of the above.
Lean systems engineering (LSE) is a combination of lean engineering and systems engineering. At its core, it seeks to build a system with the full set of functionality but with a minimum of pieces or components. LSE is almost always focused on complexity reduction, with the assumption that this has a number of benefits like improved quality, greater reliability or less waste.
In short, the goal of LSE is to keep the whole thing simple from drawing board to factory floor to disposal.
Does Lean Systems Engineering Improve Quality?
Lean systems engineering is the byproduct of lean engineering principles or industrial engineering. For example, applying lean manufacturing principles to a production line may result in fewer operation steps. With fewer material transfers and manufacturing operations, the manufacturing system as a whole should see fewer errors because there are fewer opportunities for them to occur. If parts are handled less, there is less opportunity for something to be dropped or misplaced. If assembly steps or manufacturing steps are combined, there may be fewer opportunities for defects to occur.
When lean and lean systems engineering principles are applied to a product, reliability and quality don’t always go up. When a product’s design is simplified per lean engineering principles, such as combining multiple components into one, the reliability rate usually rises because there are fewer connection points that can fail.
However, a very complex part replacing five simple ones may have a higher malfunction rate than the others—raising the possibility that lean systems engineering created an end product more likely to fail than its predecessor. Likewise, a more complex part may be harder to manufacture than several simple ones, so the quality levels of the new part are harder to meet because it is harder to manufacture correctly.
Another example is the elimination of redundancy in the design. If you have fewer sensors or backup components, the odds of overall failure go up because there are fewer backup components to use. Even if the new components are less likely to fail individually, eliminating a third of them still increases the odds of the entire unit failing.
Lean systems engineering applied to software engineering doesn’t always improve quality. Reusing code modules with defects will hurt the quality of the program. Simplifying software testing procedures to exclude rarely occurring failures may mean it isn’t tested for that failure at all.
Reducing the number of requirements for a system could mean failing to meet customer expectations, because you are no longer trying to meet their full list of expectations. When system checks or oversight are eliminated, the system may be simpler, but the odds of failure may go up. Lean systems thus doesn't always equal a higher product.
Why Isn’t LSE as Common as Six Sigma?
LSE requires mapping out the entire workflow of an operation, so that it can be streamlined as a whole. Lean manufacturing projects to improve a specific manufacturing bottleneck or waste problem are smaller in scope, cheaper to implement and more likely to deliver measurable results quickly. The high risk and great cost of lean systems engineering is shared with lean six sigma or LSS, and that is why neither is commonly implemented.
The risk and cost are amplified by the iterative nature of process improvement methodologies. It is easier to change one variable at a time to reduce part failures or out of spec components than rearrange the factory periodically in the hope of making it better.
LSE is hard to implement when your parts come from suppliers. You can design new, consolidated components for them to build, but you have little control over how they build them beyond quality specifications, product testing and systems tests.
Value mapping to a business’ systems can help identify non-value added activities that could be eliminated or consolidated, such as moving material handling closer to the production area or combining inspection and test on the assembly line. Managers tend to resist these tools being applied to human employees, barring the hiring of lower-cost employees to free up experts. And what an LSE sees as complexity managers may think of as solutions.
For example, think of the bizarre warning labels on so many products, all the result of someone actually doing what the warning says not to do. The warning label is a simple administrative solution to what is otherwise a complex engineering solution. More process steps tend to be the solution to problems, adding complexity to systems in the name of preventing future problems.
LSE requires applying lean engineering principles to a product’s design, when getting it working and then getting the price of the product down are the highest priorities.
INCOSE and LSE Certifications
The INCOSE group has an LSE Working Group founded in 2005. LSE experts certified by INCOSE are called Lean Enablers for Systems Engineering (LEfSE). This is similar to the six sigma black belt and lean six sigma belts offered by groups like the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE).
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.