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Understanding the What, Why, and Benefits of Systems Engineering

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                    Table of Contents


What is Systems Engineering?

Systems Engineering is a process for successfully developing any type of system.  The process defines a set of system development steps that help an organization do the following:

  • Create a system that meets the needs of the people or agencies who will use it
  • Create this system within the budget and schedule defined at the beginning of the effort.


Systems Engineering as a process for system development was first described in the 1950s and was originally created to address the development of large-scale defense systems. Since then it has been broadened into a discipline that is used in all kinds of project developments. Systems engineering can be applied to any system development, whether you are developing a household appliance, building an airplane, or implementing a sophisticated transit management system. As the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) defines it:


“Systems Engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.


Systems Engineering integrates all the disciplines and specialty groups into a team effort forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation. Systems Engineering considers both the business and the technical needs of all customers with the goal of providing a quality product that meets the user needs.”


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Why Use the Systems Engineering Process?

Why should an agency consider incorporating the Systems Engineering process into their project development efforts?  There are really two answers to this and they involve a carrot and a stick.  The very large carrot is that the Systems Engineering process will improve the likelihood of success when developing a system.  The stick is that the USDOT requires that elements of the systems engineering process be used on certain ITS projects.  The details of this stick are given below.  The remainder of this section describes the carrot- what are the benefits of using a Systems Engineering process for project development?


 What every project manager wants at the end of their project is a “successful” result.  And how would a project manager measure “success”?  The two most relevant results are

  • An implementation satisfies the needs of the people who use it
  • A project that stayed within the budgeted cost and schedule


Systems engineering reduces the risk of schedule and cost overruns and increases the likelihood that the implementation will meet the user’s needs.  In addition to providing this overall benefit, the Systems Engineering Process can provide:

  • improved stakeholder participation
  • shorter project cycles
  • more adaptable and resilient systems
  • verified functionality and fewer defects
  • better documentation

These assertions have been supported by several studies that have shown that good systems engineering results in better cost and schedule performance. 


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Do FTA and FHWA Require a Systems Engineering Process?

US DOT recognized the potential benefit of the systems engineering approach for ITS projects and included requirements for the use of the systems engineering process in the FHWA Final Rule/FTA Final Policy on Architecture and Standards that was enacted on January 8, 2001. The Rule/Policy requires a systems engineering analysis to be performed for ITS projects that use funds from the Highway Trust Fund, including the Mass Transit Account. The section below shows the excerpt from the Final Rule/Policy that specifies the minimum requirements that the systems engineering analysis must include.



What Are the SE Requirements of the FHWA Rule & FTA Policy?

The FHWA Rule and  FTA Policy on Architecture and Standards includes the following language pertaining to systems engineering:


     § 940.11 Project implementation.

          (a) All ITS projects funded with highway trust funds shall be based on a systems engineering analysis.

          (b) The analysis should be on a scale commensurate with the project scope.

          (c) The systems engineering analysis shall include, at a minimum:

     (1) Identification of portions of the regional ITS architecture being implemented (or if a regional ITS architecture does not exist, the applicable portions of      the National ITS Architecture);

     (2) Identification of participating agencies roles and responsibilities;

     (3) Requirements definitions;

     (4) Analysis of alternative system configurations and technology options to meet requirements;

     (5) Procurement options;

     (6) Identification of applicable ITS standards and testing procedures; and

     (7) Procedures and resources necessary for operations and management of the system.


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Are there Examples of Transit Benefits to Using the USDOT SE Process?

The answer is a resounding yes. Recent interviews with transit agency personnel identified real benefits (like those listed above) including:

One agency described a benefit related to greater stakeholder participation.  Their use of the SE process helped the agency and the other stakeholders go through each step rather than jumping right to the final design.  This created a project that did a much better job of addressing user needs.    A second agency interview identified directly the benefit of keeping the project on schedule and budget.  In addition it gave the agency much better visibility into their contractor’s progress through the SE documentation.


They also felt that using the process saves the agency a lot of trouble at the backend of the project because the surprises are minimized. The Concept of Operations output in particular made the agency and the rest of the stakeholders more aware of how the parts of the system will integrate and work together.

Additional lessons learned can be found on the USDOT / RITA website under lessons learned on Systems Engineering Activities

Systems Engineering Activities from "Lessons Learned Knowledge Resource" [http://www.itslessons.its.dot.gov/its/benecost.nsf/LessonSystemsEng]

In addition, Summary of CHART Systems Engineering Activities by project phase [http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/cadiv/segb/views/document/Sections/Section8/8_5_3.htm] describes the level of effort of a completed project which used the USDOT Systems Engineering Process.


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What Are the Steps of the Systems Engineering Process and Their Purpose?

These USDOT references describe the systems engineering life cycle through the mechanism of a “V” model (hereafter referred to as the Vee model) that is shown in the Figure below ("Vee: Diagram). This model describes the key steps in the overall process, beginning with the creation of a Regional ITS Architecture to define the integration of ITS deployments in a region, and continuing through the life cycle all the way to system retirement or replacement decision. Notice in the diagram that most steps on the Vee have a “decision point” (shown in the diagram as a small oval) at the conclusion of the step (identified as Document/Approval in the figure). At each of these steps there is some output of the process that must be reviewed and approved so that development can move to the next step. These decision points are one of the key attributes of the systems engineering process.



                                                        Figure:  Systems Engineering Method -- "Vee" Diagram


The specific steps in the Vee Diagram are:

(The information in the subsequent pages are extracted from USDOT Systems Engineering documents and http://www.itslessons.its.dot.gov/its/benecost.nsf/LessonSystemsEng.)

·        Regional Architecture

·        Feasibility Study / Concept Exploration

·        Concept of Operations

·        System Requirements

·        High-Level Design

·        Detailed Design

·        Software/Hardware Development & Field Installation

·        Unit/Device Testing

·        Subsystem Verification

·        System Verification & Deployment

·        System Validation

·        Operations & Maintenance

·        Changes & Upgrades

·        Retirement & Replacement

In addition, system engineering planning also includes Project & Technical Management and Program Management activities.


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What are the benefits from linking Systems Engineering with the other TEAP Framework Elements?

The figure below shows the interrelationships between Systems Engineering  and the other TEAP Framework elements. 


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