The Essence of MITRE's Systems Engineering

The section The Evolution of Systems Engineering notes that the systems engineering discipline is defined by the context or environment in which it is embedded. This companion section describes more specifically how the distinctive attributes of MITRE systems engineering are shaped by the expectations of our sponsors and customers and further formed by our corporate interpretation of the quality systems engineering required to meet those expectations.

Quality systems engineering at MITRE includes delivering a high-quality product or service and meeting external expectations. Our external expectations are set by multiple stakeholders, including our immediate customers as well as the end users of the capabilities we help create, our FFRDC sponsors, and our Board of Trustees. For the most part, the higher level expectations from our sponsors and Board align with each other and with our internal aspirations based on our strategic framework. They also align with how MITRE can and should uniquely contribute to meeting end-user needs. These alignment points include working in the public interest on issues of critical national importance by:

  • Proactively applying systems engineering and advanced technology.
  • Bringing timely and innovative/creative solutions to key, hard problems.
  • Balancing technical feasibility with economic and political practicality.
  • Leveraging breadth and depth of engineering with mission/business domain knowledge.
  • Providing an integrating perspective across boundaries.
  • Always retaining objectivity and being cost effective in our work.

To meet these expectations, we need to be doing appropriate work that answers the nation's needs. This is the key requirement that cuts across our sponsoring agreements. We also need to satisfy our immediate customers. And we need to invest in developing quality relationships with decision makers, stakeholders, and our customers to shape our work and present results so that they have the impact they deserve. Therefore, quality in MITRE systems engineering can be defined as the degree to which the results of our work:

  1. Meet the higher level expectations for our FFRDCs—resulting in usability and value for end recipients.
  2. Meet the expectations of our immediate customers—service and performance.

Pressures on our customers often lead them to ask for quick reaction responses from MITRE. To the extent that a quick response is practical, we must provide it. (When the imposed constraints make an informed response impractical, we need to define the extent to which we can make an informed response, explain why we cannot go further, and refuse the remainder of the task.) And our processes for identifying and leveraging applicable past analyses and data, informed professional judgments, and relevant experiences (either within or external to MITRE) need to be focused on enabling the highest quality response within the constraints imposed. Whenever possible we should document our delivery (even after the fact)— —the assumptions made, the methods used, and the results conveyed. We also must develop our knowledge base to continually improve our ability to respond to future requests related to our core competencies.

Moreover, we must assess the risks of quick responses to understand the possible issues with their accuracy and completeness, including the potential consequences of these issues—and so inform the customer. When the risk is high, we should strongly recommend a plan for a more complete, fact-based analysis, using—— as needed— —trade-space exploration, modeling and simulation, experimentation, proof-of-concept prototyping, etc. Clearly, circumstances requiring in-depth study, especially if associated with key national capability outcomes, entail careful planning and work shaping, appropriate staffing and resources, peer and management consultation and review throughout the execution of the work, and socializing and delivering the results so that they are correctly interpreted and acted on. Importantly, the higher level expectations on MITRE can only be met when a significant fraction of our work goes beyond quick response activities, so finding ourselves in these circumstances should be relatively common.

The higher level expectations on MITRE push us beyond responding to customer requests toward proactively identifying key issues on which we can make a difference. These often involve enterprise objectives such as integration and interoperability for information sharing across the government (and, at times, beyond), which may exceed the bounds of an individual customer's purview. When these proactive initiatives lead to substantive efforts, they also demand the same attributes discussed above applied to their planning, execution, and delivery.

In summary, quality involves both doing enough of the right work and doing all of our work (but especially the higher impact work) right. It also includes building relationships so that high impact is, in fact, realized. These objectives are reachable only if we all understand the expectations, are frank and open about assessing the work we're asked to do, foster a culture that values quality and learns from both mistakes and successes, follow through (internally and with our customers) on resource allocations, and pay attention to important relationships. Upper management needs to take the lead, but we all need to contribute. Especially with the immediate customer, it's often the project staff that have the frequent connections that influence the customer's perception of our quality and the acceptance of our recommendations.

What does successful systems engineering look like at MITRE? There is no single definition of systems engineering, and so there is no single definition of success. Much depends on the context in which the systems engineering is being practiced. Nevertheless, the following criteria help define MITRE systems engineers.

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