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The design structure matrix: helping to see complexity in systems

Many global business organizations develop and manage complex systems with multiple interacting parts. In an effort to become more effective, efficient, and profitable in the face of growing complexity, businesses seek process innovations that help them streamline their systems. Perhaps that’s why the design structure matrix (DSM), originally developed in the 1970s to model design problems and used at MIT since the 1990s to research system complexity, has become a powerful tool for developing products and systems.

In their recent book, Design Structure Matrix Methods and ApplicationsSteven Eppinger, Professor of Management Science and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan School of Management, and co-author Tyson Browning, show how DSM analysis helps companies streamline the process of product and system design.

“Engineering work can be procedural and systematic,” says Eppinger. “People think of engineering as a matter of always developing something new, unlike business operations, where you do something over and over again. But we’ve learned that while you may repeat engineering work five or 20 times in your career instead of 100 times a day, there’s a process there. And if you can capture that process, you can improve it.”

The design structure matrix refers to a square grid representing how each element in the overall system relates to every other element. A DSM chart is able to create insights for system engineers and managers who must design, organize, implement, and maintain the system and its many interactions.

Applications of the Design Structure Matrix

Development Process: The process DSM maps the activities and deliverables required to execute complex procedures such as engineering design. This allows system engineers and project managers to understand the design iterations required in the process, to smooth out the flow of information, and to get things done faster.

Organizational Planning: The organization DSM maps the people, teams, and departments working together to execute complex workflows. This allows managers to see how people are communicating and which ones would benefit from greater alignment, physical co-location, or better connection to the actual system being developed or managed.

System Design: The product architecture DSM maps the components of a complex system in relation to each other. This type of DSM allows engineers to see the system architecture in a new and compelling way. It helps designers to visualize the interaction among modular and integrative elements of a system, to spot missing interfaces, and to cluster components into more effective subsystems.

“Hundreds of organizations have used DSM. But thousands more could also benefit from applying it. I’d like to see more applications of DSM in health care systems, medical devices, biotech, and pharmaceuticals. I’d also like to see more applications in energy systems, automotive, aerospace, software, and mechatronics,” says Eppinger. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”

Steven Eppinger is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan and teaches DSM methods in the Executive Education program, Managing Complex Technical Projects. Participants in this program also receive a copy of his recent book, Design Structure Matrix Methods and Applications. Professor Eppinger also teaches in the five-day executive education program, Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services.