The System Design and Management Gospel, according to Ed Crawley

Edward Crawley

SDM co-founder explains difference between value propositions of MBA vs. master’s in engineering and management

By David Rosenbaum
June 29, 2010

Success, it’s said, has a thousand fathers. But there’s no disputing that one of the System Design and Management Program’s (SDM) most prominent fathers is Edward Crawley, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems.

"Historically," says Crawley, "people believed you needed to get a BS in engineering and then an MBA. But that’s an intellectually incomplete approach that has little to do with either engineering practice or leadership of engineering endeavors. The SDM program was created to fill that need."

According to Crawley, who co-founded SDM with Institute Professor Tom Magnanti, SDM’s genesis began in the mid-1980s. U.S. manufacturers (including Boeing, United Technologies, IBM, and the Big Three auto makers), believing they had lost their competitive edge to Japan and to new manufacturing process strategies such as TQM, lean, and the Toyota Production System, asked MIT to educate a cadre of students who could reform U.S. manufacturing and accomplish, says Crawley, "systematic organizational change."

However, at that time Crawley says "MIT engineers were not educated to tackle enterprise-wide challenges." Their academic training focused narrowly on bench science, not on what Crawley calls the broad vision of "Big E" engineering. Industry was begging for a new kind of engineer, educated to lead and to understand business while still capable of creating, in Crawley’s neat phrase, "new gizmos for humanity."

Because manufacturing was an obvious starting point, the Leaders for Manufacturing (LFM) program was created to explore whether it was possible to design practices that could be applied on factory floors across industries as diverse as IT, aerospace, automotive, and chemicals. With that program’s success, MIT’s new dean of engineering, Joel Moses, asked Crawley and Magnanti to create another new program to educate engineers to lead at the front end – in innovative product design and development.

Crawley says when he and Magnanti spoke with industry executives about another new program, they discovered that industry desperately needed engineers who could lead the engineering process. Specifically, they needed engineering leaders who understood marketing in order to know what to design, and they needed engineering leaders who could understand finance and figure out how to build these products profitably and sustainably. In short, they needed engineering leaders who could grasp the technical, managerial and social challenges in new product design and development, and lead others in their companies to innovate in new and more competitive ways.

"A BS in engineering doesn’t guarantee that you can actually build a successful product and a degree in management isn’t a degree in engineering leadership," says Crawley. "Managers deliver numbers—volumes and profits—to their organizations. But engineers don’t want to deliver numbers; they want to create new products to serve humanity."

In 1995, the new SDM degree program (which focuses on mid-career professionals because, as Crawley says, it takes five to 10 years of on-the-job experience to learn how to build something valuable) began. A testament to its success, says Crawley, is the fact that since that first 1996 pilot class of 12 students, the average class size has grown to 50+ and often consists of students who are CEOs, CTOs, and senior engineers – many of whom already have MBAs, PhDs or master’s in engineering.

Crawley says, anecdotally, that a proof of the SDM concept and the need for engineers who can lead comes from the Department of Defense, the largest consumer of engineering talent in the world. Asked recently what its biggest human resources need was, DoD responded: system engineers.

And thanks in large part to Crawley, Magnanti, and SDM, industry now has them.