Applying SDM Lessons Across Diverse Industries

Lisa Cratty By Lisa Cratty, SDM ’01
September 14, 2011

Editor’s note: Lisa Cratty, SDM ’01, is the director of device research and development for pre-analytical systems at BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), a medical technology company that manufactures medical supplies, devices, laboratory equipment, and diagnostic products.

Ten years have passed since I enrolled in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program. Since then, my career has taken me from the automotive industry to baby products to medical devices. Yet, the systems thinking and skills I learned in SDM have proved highly transferable, helping me to address a variety of challenges in different settings.

Developing a Commonality Strategy for Ford Motor Company

As a student sponsored by Ford, I was inspired by SDM’s Technology Strategy class to take a fresh look at the complexity of products the company offered at that time. I had been working on the Ford Explorer, which was nearly identical to two other models Ford had in production, the Mercury Mountaineer and the Lincoln Aviator. The number of different features offered was huge. For example, nine sets of wheels and tires were available among those three cars, and more than 30 different seat combinations were offered among Ford’s small cars.

The Technology Strategy class taught me to focus on three key questions: How do you create markets? How do you build an organization to deliver value? And, how do you capture value in the face of competition?

I thought that Ford was going off track by putting money where the customer couldn’t see value—such as by offering incrementally different tires and grades of carpeting. My thesis, which I co-wrote with fellow SDM student Matthew Sahutske, argued that the company could optimize its use of components by creating functional units that would serve many different models, rather than creating each vehicle from scratch.

We interviewed more than 100 Ford employees in a range of positions and found the biggest technical challenge was getting engineers to understand that reusing components would not be simple. It can actually be more difficult than starting from scratch, because the components need to integrate into different designs. At the management level, we had to explain the competitive advantage of this kind of restructuring. Reuse can reduce time to market, but it’s not the best choice for every company. Because BMW has a niche market, for example, it stands to benefit more from distinguishing features and setting up project teams for each vehicle.

We presented our results to Ford’s leadership in 2003. Although I can’t say there was a direct connection to the changes that later occurred at Ford, I will say the company is now organized much more along the lines we suggested.

Value Stream Mapping for Lean Engineering at Lear Corporation

As an engineering supervisor at Lear Corporation, a global supplier of automotive seating and interior and electrical systems, I had direct reports for the first time and full responsibility for project management. In this role, systems thinking was even more critical than at Ford, because my job involved designing complex interior systems that had to be integrated into exterior systems provided by other manufacturers.

I relied a lot on the lean engineering lessons taught at SDM by Professor of the Practice of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems Deborah Nightingale. Whenever I needed to present information about costs, timing, or why I needed to involve the manufacturer at a certain point, I would use the value stream mapping skills I learned in her course to present the data behind my decisions. It was very persuasive.

SDM’s foundation course in system and project management was also very useful to me at Lear, because I was well equipped to track all the project elements and could always explain exactly where we were on the production timeline.

Quantifying and Mitigating Risk at Evenflo Company

Every product I have worked on has had some sort of human interface. However, parents and babies use Evenflo products, so there was an emotional component for consumers that was new to me. I had to negotiate with marketing colleagues, who wanted products inspired by designs that were bold, colorful, and fun. But from an engineering standpoint, form has to follow function. In addition, the tolerance for risk in these products is very, very low—so low, in fact, that the company tended to be less interested in quantifying and mitigating risk than in sticking to what had worked in the past. That made it very challenging to innovate.

System Architecture, which was taught by Ford Professor of Engineering Edward F. Crawley, proved to be an excellent foundation for my work at Evenflo. I often used TRIZ, a Russian problem-solving and forecasting tool sometimes translated as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, to examine the tradeoffs between possible design solutions—such as a change in size. For assembly, I used risk analysis to weigh the benefits of new features—for example, to consider whether a snap feature instead of a screw would be durable enough to withstand the bouncing of a baby using its new activity center.

Systems Engineering at BD

Today, as the director of device research and development for Preanalytical Systems at BD, I’ve found that the subsystems I work on are physically much simpler—a needle versus a car—but the overall system is huge. It encompasses patients, healthcare workers, and clinical laboratories that are all trying to come up with accurate diagnoses and corresponding treatments in cases that can be life threatening.

Consider what’s involved in simply designing a needle for drawing blood. Factors to be weighed include vein integrity, patient age, and the best way to access the vein. The product also has to be safe and easy for the healthcare worker to use, and it must work every time, without exception. The vial used to collect blood also has to be treated to prevent clotting and must fit into whatever instruments will be used to conduct the testing.

Defining user needs, allocating functionality, decomposing the system, and defining interfaces were all central lessons of SDM’s System Architecture course—and these are skills I continually use to make data-driven decisions about our products. I also continue to use what I learned at SDM about lean manufacturing and value-stream mapping. Because it’s impossible to tackle everything at once, it’s necessary to determine what tasks are most critical.

Many of the system engineering tools I learned at SDM, including Pugh concept selection and House of Quality, are also important here. Often, we have to do several different Pughs because we serve so many different clients. For example, a healthcare worker might like a blood collection tube to have a cap that’s easy to remove, while the lab worker might want one that will stay on tight in the testing device. So, we do Pughs from different perspectives to see if we can find a common architecture that meets everyone’s needs. Then, we can use a House of Quality diagram to map out what’s important to the business and weigh that against the needs of the customer.

Bottom line? Although I graduated from SDM 10 years ago, I continue to rely on the lessons I learned at MIT every day.

Lisa Cratty