Systems Thinking in the MEM Program

Samantha Planas is a systems engineer at Fenwal and member of the INCOSE Chicagoland chapter as well as a current MEM student. In this post she shares an overview of systems engineering and offers suggestions on how to stay relevant in the field. 

You can’t design a plug without awareness of its receptacle.  You can’t design a pump without awareness of the fluid to be moved.  All around us, systems thinking is critical to robust design.

According to the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), systems engineering is “an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems.”  According to me, systems engineering is the point of integration of more detailed engineering disciplines.  The focus on integrated design makes systems engineering an ideal fit with Northwestern’s MEM program.

I have worked as a systems engineer since I finished my undergraduate studies in Biomedical Engineering, spending two years at Baxter before transitioning to my current role at Fenwal.  The medical device industry is one of a handful of industries in which systems engineering is commonplace, the others being defense, transportation, energy, and telecom.  In principle, however, systems engineering is critical to the successful integration of any system.

Most devices include a combination of mechanical, electrical, and software components. If the electrical signal output by the hardware is not what is expected for processing by the software, the system will not be able to perform.  If the mechanical design doesn’t accommodate the layout of the circuit boards, development must change course. Even if the system integrates successfully, it may not meet the needs of the target users.  Systems engineers seek to resolve these issues.

The systems engineering process is often described using a V-model, in which customer needs are at the top left, cascading down through lower-level requirements to the detailed design.  The elements are verified and validated accordingly as the system is integrated. By following this process, systems engineering incorporates the relevant high-level requirements into the details of the system.  These principles are especially powerful when subsystem development teams are geographically dispersed or employed by different companies.

The systems engineering V-model (Source:, there are a handful of academic institutions offering degrees in systems engineering, but INCOSE remains the de facto reference for systems engineering knowledge. INCOSE offers a systems engineering body of knowledge, as well as tutorials, webinars, scholarly articles, presentations, and certification. Because MEM students strive to become leaders in technical companies, we must find a place in the curriculum for systems thinking. As a member of the INCOSE Chicagoland Chapter, I fully support a systems thinking elective as part of the MEM curriculum.  A focus on system integration will keep Northwestern’s MEM at the cutting edge of engineering management techniques.

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