What is Systems Engineering?

A lot of us have heard the term “Systems Engineering” bandied about. Some say, with a smile, that it is an “aha moment” when they see it used properly within an enterprise. Others ask “why all this formality? It will stifle creativity.” Not many of us know what it means, much less that when it is used properly it is a golden tool of discipline that ensures amazing performance and exceptional customer satisfaction. Not many have lived the process and seen the benefits.

Systems Engineering is widely used in the defense industry. Therefore, reference documents from the Defense Acquisition University are great resources.


The Defense Acquisition Guidebook (Reference 1) defines the term as follows:

“Systems engineering (SE) is a methodical and disciplined approach for the specification, design, development, realization, technical management, operations, and retirement of a system. … A system is an aggregation of system elements and enabling system elements to achieve a given purpose or provide a needed capability. The enabling system elements provide the means for delivering a capability into service, keeping it in service, or ending its service and may include those processes or products necessary for developing, producing, testing, deploying, and sustaining the system.”

Systems Engineering is typically described using the “V” diagram. The process illustrates the “womb-to-tomb” perspective that is required for the process to be effective. The operational need is decomposed and channeled into becoming the technical requirements which feed the product design.



System Engineering is the structured step process that controls the linkage between what the customer wants or needs, through the development & validation processes leading to successful achievement of the delivery requirements. To realize a successful delivery of product in hardware and software, prototypes must be built and tested. Testing includes both developmental and operational testing. Ultimately, the product goes into production, fielding or serviceable use, upgrades and performance modifications that the customer needs or wants, and (at some point) retirement. All of this must be considered in the operational needs and requirements statements and analyses. Actually, it’s conventional wisdom. Think before you act.

The Defense Acquisition Guidebook (Reference 1) states the following:

“Systems engineering (SE) establishes the technical framework for delivering materiel capabilities to the warfighter. SE provides the foundation upon which everything else is built and supports program success.

SE ensures the effective development and delivery of capability through the implementation of a balanced approach with respect to cost, schedule, performance, and risk using integrated, disciplined, and consistent SE activities and processes regardless of when a program enters the acquisition life cycle. SE also enables the development of engineered resilient systems that are trusted, assured, and easily modified (agile).”

The earlier in the process that issues can be discovered and dealt with, the lower the cost of solving them.


In their 2012 report (Reference 2), “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs,” the General Accountability Office stated:

“Positive acquisition outcomes require the use of a knowledge-based approach to product development that demonstrates high levels of knowledge before significant commitments are made. In essence, knowledge supplants risk over time.”

The Defense Acquisition Guidebook (Reference 1) states the following about SE benefits:

•     “Supports development of realistic and achievable program performance, schedule, and cost goals as documented in the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) documents, Acquisition Program Baseline (APB), Technology Development Strategy (TDS), and Acquisition Strategy (AS).

•     Provides the end-to-end, integrated perspective of the technical activities and processes across the system life cycle, including how the system fits into a larger system of systems (SoS) construct.

•     Emphasizes the use of integrated, consistent, and repeatable processes to reduce risk while maturing and managing the system baseline. The final product baseline forms the basis for production, sustainment, future changes, and upgrades.

•     Provides insight into system life-cycle resource requirements and impacts on human health and the environment.”


STEVE CZERNIAK – Mr. Czerniak retired after a successful career that culminated in fifteen years of experience as an internal consultant and “change agent.” He is currently an Expert-in-Residence at the Macomb-Oakland University Incubator and a volunteer with the Troy Historic Village and Historical Society.

JIM RUMA – With more than 42 years of defense industry experience, Mr. Ruma most recently served as Vice President of Engineering Programs at General Dynamics Land Systems. He is now a board member, and past President, of the Michigan National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) Michigan chapter. He also is a Mac-OU Inc Expert-in-Residence to benefit those clients needing engineering and program/project management support.

REFERENCES –  1) Defense Acquisition Guidebook.  Chapter 4, Systems Engineering.  15 May 2013.  https://acc.dau.mil/docs/dag_pdf/dag_ch4.pdf  2) Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs.  March 2012.  http://www.gao.gov/assets/590/589695.pdf

DEFINITION OF ACRONYMS – DT&E = Development Test & Evaluation;  FOC = Full Operational Capability;  IOC = Initial Operational Capability;  OT&E = Operational Test & Evaluation

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