To MBSE or Not to MBSE

10-05-20Andy Skotnicki
Andy Skotnicki

What is Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE)?

First and foremost, MBSE is Systems Engineering, and Systems Engineering is a multi-disciplined approach to the engineering of complex solutions. The key word here is engineering, not modeling or process. Although MBSE has been around a long time, since at least the late 80s/early 90s, the recent push into Digital Engineering has provided increased awareness to a much larger audience, for better or worse.

If Systems Engineering isn’t already being done well, then it will not be possible to fully leverage this more rigorous methodology to solve problems for customers in a more efficient manner. The primary intent of tools, any tool, is to make a task easier, more efficient, and can potentially result in predictable scaling of effort. Many in the SETA community have unfortunately interpreted MBSE as modeling of random information, or focused on using a specific tool, or rushing to use immature but evolving standards like SysML and Unified Architecture Framework (UAF), which have resulted in the opposite of the effect desired. The barriers to successful entry have become significant and are often not fully understood until well into the investment when results fail to meet the hype. These overly flexible and evolving standards and tools often result in increased complexity and decreased efficiency.

Practitioners in this new environment (often referred to as “tool jockeys,” demonstrating the focus on the tool vice the engineering) don’t seem to realize that MBSE is intended to be an extension of engineering. Engineers, not modelers, create solutions to problems, often represented as an architecture or design and associated derived requirements. Within MBSE, an architecture is part of a more integrated perspective called a model, and a model is analogous to an engineer’s digital logbook; captures decisions, rationale, and risks to be managed.

In my 25 years of applying MBSE to various programs, I have rarely seen an actual model. So unless actual Systems Engineering (engineering vice just management processes) is already strong, trying to leverage the potential power of SE tools to gain efficiencies will ultimately result in a significant cost increase, lack of added value, a repository mentality, and information that isn’t normalized or bounded correctly, as well as the potential to lose a client’s support and trust as has happened with so many shiny widgets that came before. Investing in education, training, mentoring, and active career management will result in greater return on investment and sustainable growth.

Achieving the expected results also requires that our clients begin to hold their SE/MBSE support to a higher standard, while also allowing more autonomy in execution. It’s actually about having the right people do the right work at the right time. MBSE will not fix the de-evolution of Systems Engineering competency in the SETA community over the last 3 decades until the focus is put back on first principles and fundamentals of architecting/engineering so that Systems Engineers can provide effective leadership in solving problems and addressing critical questions only experienced engineering can answer.

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