Elon uses Systems Engineering.
Yup, honestly he does. In an interview with ‘Every Day Astronaut’ (here) he walks through his 5 step process to designing great products.
Admittedly, he has butchered the ‘ V Life Cycle’ diagram a little bit… but if there’s anyone to do so, it’s Elon. His ‘process’ is 5 steps on engineering complex stuff like spaceships and electric cars. Let’s see how it compares to actual Systems Engineering in practice.
Here’s his 5 step process:
Step 1. Make requirements less dumb.
In his interview, Elon says, first things first, m
ake your requirements less dumb. Always allocate them to a named person, not a department. This removes the possibility of some intern creating requirements two years ago who has since left the company to now having entire design teams chasing their tail trying to fulfil it. Don’t be afraid to question them, even if they come from a smart person! Each requirement carries a cost, which leads us on to the next point…
Step 2. Delete
Delete unnecessary steps. This includes requirements. Every requirement or step in the process costs money. By working hard to remove or delete any unnecessary or even mundane steps, the process can become leaner thus enabling more time on the hard stuff.
Step 3. Simplify
Hard stuff needs simplifying. If you can't delete the step then try to simplify the objective or goal / process. Don’t reinvent the wheel. For example, the Space X team uses Tesla’s Model 3 electric motors to control the grid fins on Starship. H
ow cool is that! They’ve basically platformed Tesla well enough that they know the parameters and performance requirements of a Model 3 motor which can be picked up and dropped into Starship. All because they share common technical requirements. He admits it's not optimised, but as part of simplifying the process and using the pareto 80/20, it's a worthy compromise.
Step 4. Accelerate
Speed everything up. Engineers love spending extra time polishing things to perfection. Elon believes in speeding everything up so that your cycle times between iterations are reduced. This means you can ‘fail faster’ but also ‘fail forward’. Only do this once you have completed steps 1-3.
Step 5. Automate
Automate as much as possible so you don't spend unnecessary resources doing the same tasks. An example he gives is for quality control. If your process has intermediate steps of quality control and most of your components pass this test, that's a stage that can be automated and a stricter Quality control can be placed at the very end. In turn saving time and resources. He’s particularly talking about the manufacturing process when it leads to automation but the lesson still applies to other disciplines.
So how is Elon using the Systems Engineering V cycle? Well, he’s very good at holistic thinking. He is notorious for one minute, sitting in a design review, questioning a specific design point and underlying theoretical formula, to the next of being on the launch pad checking out the welds on a control tower.
His 5 step process is a condensed V.
In step 1, he follows a SMART requirements process.
In step 2. He’s applying a lean and pragmatic approach by only working on the most prescient problems. Typical systems engineering can bloat programs, pragmatic application of SE by good practitioners actually deletes parts of the V which doesn’t serve the project.
In step 3. Simplifying problems can often mean going back to first principles. Often the way to get there is actually through functional modelling or understanding the system as a whole and working your way to individual functions or parts. It’s not a specific process of the V cycle but it’s aligned to ‘lean systems engineering’.
Step 4. Accelerate actually equates to the
simulation, validation & verification in our common processes but only when you have done steps 1-3 well. As SEs we use tools to do a lot of this work for us to accelerate programs. We might simulate system functions to understand behaviour using MATLAB or simulink, we may run rig based testing to verify early stage results, or even build mockup minimum viable products to validate that were fulfilling a user need early on. Thus accelerating our design lifecycle.
Step 5. Automation, well, we haven’t reached this quite yet in SE, it’s still a very much manual effort augmented with tools. But imagine a future where we could have auto recommender systems proposing system development routes or functions to fulfil system requirements and architectures. Our mouths are salivating over the thought of being replaced.
FUN ELON QUOTES
We started out capturing fun Elon quotes but the list got rather long, rather quickly. Here’s a few of our favourites.
“Only a fool would use newtons when we are talking about rockets, cause like its bazillion newtons”.
“You want everyone to be chief engineer - everyone understands the system at a high level. So when someone is making an optimisation, they understand affected components”
That’s how Elon rolls. He’s a pretty big systems thinker who adopts holistic thinking on a planetary scale (🤣) and has butchered our beloved ISO 15288 process along the way to suit his purpose.
But that’s cool, we can let it slide on this occasion.