Michael D. Griffin Explains How to Fix System Engineering

This week, as part of the ongoing School of Systems & Enterprises (SSE) Dean’s Seminar Series, Stevens Institute of Technology was honored to host Michael D. Griffin, eminent scholar and current professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

More than 120 guests filled the standing-room only classroom, with another 100 people dialing in to join the event online. SSE Dean Dinesh Verma welcomed everyone, describing the Dean’s Seminar Series as a venue for “folks who need no introduction to come to campus and speak to us about topics in engineering.” Beginning a year and a half ago, the Series is a bi-annual event and features distinguished guests from industry, government and academia.

Stevens’ Interim President George P. Korfiatis then introduced Jeff Wilcox, VP of corporate engineering at Lockheed Martin and member of the SSE Board of Advisors. Dr. Korfiatis said: “We are privileged to have both Jeff Wilcox and Michael Griffin here today.”

“I really wanted to be a part of today’s event,” Wilcox stated. “Michael Griffin is a rare engineering leader as he has combined experience and expertise in government, industry and academia. Stevens is at the forefront of engineering education today, making this an ideal venue for Mike’s seminar.”

Wilcox went on to give a brief bio of Griffin, encompassing his tenure at NASA, five Master’s degrees and inclusion in Time Magazine’s 100 Annual List of the Most Influential People in the World in 2008. Additionally he noted that in November of this year, Griffin was ranked seventh in an informal survey conducted by the Space Foundation of inspirational space heroes.

Currently, Griffin is the King-McDonald Eminent Scholar and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Director of the Center for System Studies at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. From 2005-09 he was the Administrator of NASA. Prior to re-joining NASA he was Space Department Head at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He has also held numerous executive positions within industry, including President and Chief Operating Officer of In-Q-Tel, Chief Executive Officer of Magellan Systems, General Manager of Orbital Science Corporation’s Space Systems Group, and Executive Vice President and Chief Technical Officer at Orbital.

Griffin took the podium and led the attendees through his seminar entitled How do we fix System Engineering? After offering a look at the history of system engineering (and engineering in general), Griffin transitioned seamlessly into his suggestions for the future with well-spoken ease and clearly apparent knowledge. At the end, he opened the floor for some questions, all of which were met with thoughtful clarity.

“In academia and advanced research, I believe we must first ask interesting questions. From there we can set up experiments and studies to find the answers,” Griffin asserted. “My observation is that System Engineering has not followed this process yet.”

In his belief, the true goal should be design of products that are “elegant.” As an engineer, one can easily see when something fits this definition, though Griffin said it’s harder to explain. He said: “We can identify good system engineers, but we can’t always identify good system engineering.”

To ascertain a product’s “elegance,” Griffin asks four questions: Does this product work? Is it robust? Is it efficient? What does it do that you didn’t want it to do? His conclusion is that there aren’t measures in place yet to determine how well things are done. “We don’t have a theory of system engineering,” Griffin stated.

Griffin closed his seminar with his suggestion for “fixing” system engineering: a proactive, collaborative research effort. “I see the future being driven by inter-disciplinary teams,” he concluded. “We need to combine government, industry and academia and come up with a theory – then we can advance the frontiers of system engineering.”