Fostering Innovation

Allan McQuarrie and Michael Hammer

at SDM’s Alumni Conference

By Amy MacMillan, LFM-SDM Communications Assistant
November 29, 2005

The SDM Alumni Conference took place Oct. 24-28 at MIT, and featured dynamic speakers such as Harvard Business School Professor Carliss Baldwin, best-selling author Michael Hammer, and SDM alum Bill Taylor. More than 175 alumni, faculty, guests, and current SDM students attended this annual event. The conference’s theme was "Fostering Innovation and Leading Organizations."

Allan McQuarrie, SDM ’02, presents Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems Michael Hammer with an MIT cap following Hammer’s presentation at the SDM Alumni Conference.

In addition to the presentations, networking, and professional camaraderie, this year’s conference featured the debut of the "SDM Best Thesis" prize, which was presented to Massimo Usan, who graduated in 2005. Usan, who now works as a product engineering coordinator for ArvinMeritor in Italy, was awarded with a certificate and a $500 cash prize by the alumni.

His thesis, entitled "Automotive Component Product Development Enhancement Through Multi-Attribute System Design Optimization in an Integrated Concurrent Engineering Framework," was chosen in a two-step process by SDM thesis advisors and SDM alum judges. The prize will be awarded on a pilot basis for three years as a way to foster reciprocal links between alumni and students and recognize outstanding thesis work.

Usan said he did not expect to be honored. "I was definitely surprised to win, as I was not aware that a prize had been established for the best thesis," he said. "I had found two great thesis advisors – Dan Whitney and Olivier de Weck – who together with John Grace, my mentor in ArvinMeritor at that time, provided me with constant support and the freedom to express myself to the greatest extent."

This year’s conference was enhanced by many excellent speakers, including Bill Taylor, a recipient of Technology Review’s 2004 Top 100 Innovators Under 35 Award and a 2002 SDM graduate. He spoke on "Systems Engineering Concepts Applied to Complex Development & Commercialization." He is Chief Engineer for Engine Integration at Eaton Corporation.

Allan McQuarrie (SDM ’02) who helped organize the conference this year, said "attendee feedback was excellent…many thanks to the SDM program conference and the SDM Alumni committee for doing such a great job."

On the conference’s last day, Michael Hammer, Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and Fellow at Oxford University, offered a dynamic and informative lesson entitled, ŠAn Engineering Approach to Work and Enterprises," or as he dubbed it, "In the Footsteps of Monty Python," his hero and role model.

Hammer said he hasn’t "seen an equation in decades," but he takes his engineering perspective and applies it toward non-engineering domains in order to solve problems. "The point of view that engineering represents is perfect for large, complex, ambiguous systems," he said.

Hammer is particularly interested in "operational innovation" and in how companies develop, manufacture, and deliver their products in novel ways. He cited Wal-Mart, Dell, Southwest, and Toyota as examples of companies that excel in operational innovation.

Traditionally, industrialization has involved the specialization of labor, based on Henry Ford’s assembly line invention in the early 1900s. Today, this method is becoming obsolete because the task specialization is the focus, but the end-to-end process is ignored, Hammer said.

For instance, if a customer’s phone is broken, he has to call a customer service representative, who calls a line tester, who calls a dispatcher, who then sends out a field service technician. Hours can pass before this process is successfully completed, and meanwhile, the customer is left without phone service. "We’ve optimized the pieces, but not the whole," according to Hammer.

The process design is the key determinant of process performance. The old process designs must be overhauled and updated for today’s world, particularly in large organizations, he concluded.

Overall, Pat Hale, Director, SDM Fellows Program, was pleased with the conference’s turnout. "I heard comments from several students that the conference had significantly increased their sense of value of SDM for their futures," he said.