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Ten Things Great Systems Engineers Already Know About Product Support

Last fall, I had the privilege of authoring a Defense AT&L Magazine entitled “Ten Things Great Program Managers Know About Product Support.” Feedback was so positive, I started thinking it was…

Ten Things Great Systems Engineers Already Know About Product Support


  1. Home
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  3. Ten Things Great Systems Engineers Already Know About Product Support
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Bill Kobren

Last fall, I had the privilege of authoring a Defense AT&L Magazine entitled “Ten Things Great Program Managers Know About Product Support.” Feedback was so positive, I started thinking it was time to widen the aperture by suggesting a few things I believe great systems engineers know about product support (and I’ve had the privilege to work with many over the years who fall in what I deem to be in the “great” category!).  So here goes:


1.     Decisions you make will be felt for the life of the system. Early engagement with your life cycle logisticians is crucial. A vast majority of a weapon systems’ total ownership costs are determined by decisions made early in the life cycle, and have profound ramifications for long-term product support and sustainment strategy development. As the director of the Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE) so eloquently said, “The cost of operating and maintaining a system over its useful life is driven primarily by system design and reliability & maintainability decisions, which are typically made before production.”


2.     Design systems with supportability in mind. Open systems architecture, well thought out technical data management strategies, continuous modernization, technology insertion, reliability centered maintenance, prognostics & health management, advanced diagnostics, embedded training, and many others are powerful enablers. In fact, many would contend that along with Product Support Management, Design Interface and Sustaining Engineering are two of the most critical Integrated Product Support (IPS) Elements. Don’t forget that for the life cycle logistician, system design decisions lead to maintenance, facilities, packaging, handling, storage & transportation, and supply support requirements, which in turn lead to support equipment, technical manual and training requirements. The integrated product support elements are “integrated” for a reason! Same goes for the Systems Engineering Plan (SEP) and the Life Cycle Sustainment Plan (LCSP).


3.     We have far more in common than you might think. Life cycle logisticians and systems engineers share multiple key technical competencies (supportability analysis, reliability & maintainability analysis, technical/product data management, configuration management, to name just a few). Numerous courses are collaboratively developed and designed for students from both communities, including LOG 103 Reliability, Availability & Maintainability, the LOG 204 Configuration Management course, our new LOG 211 Supportability Analysis course, and a planned future Technical Data Management course. As one of my systems engineering colleagues astutely observed, “this is akin to a three legged race that our two communities in must run together.” In many respects, a more apt description would be a marathon. Bottom line is life cycle logisticians and systems engineers must run in lock-step!


4.     Supportability Analysis and maintenance planning really matter. Supportability Analysis informs and drives virtually every other product support decision and outcome that follows. It is arguably the linkage between user requirements and delivering supportable, sustainable weapon systems to our Warfighters. Understanding not only how to conduct the analysis, but the ramifications of the decisions being made during the process are essential to truly fulfilling the DoDD 5000.01 life cycle management mandate. Understanding the linkages, interrelationships, inputs and outputs and implications of the entire process, including product support requirements analysis, functional analysis, trade-off analysis, failure modes effects & criticality analysis (FMECA), fault tree analysis (FTA), reliability & maintainability allocation, modeling, prediction and analysis, reliability centered maintenance (RCM) and condition-based maintenance (CBM+), level of repair analysis (LORA) and maintenance task analysis (MTA) are all integral aspects of a supportability analysis process that ultimately ensure our weapon systems are operationally supportable and sustainable.


5.     Design systems with the Warfighter in mind. Human Systems Integration (HSI) matters. Think about how the human operates, interfaces with, and will actually use a weapon system. With experience, knowledge, skills and abilities in mind remain aware of what we’re asking our young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to do to support and maintain our weapon systems in the field/fleet – and in what environment they must do it in. Take the time to talk to the users of your system. Maintainability and accessibility are important considerations throughout the design and development process. Organizational level maintenance is performed in all weather, in often austere environments, and frequently in dark, hot, dusty, and cramped locations. Conversely, operators and maintainers very often operate in bulky protective gear. Consider that during systems design.


6.     More is not necessarily better. Logistics is not simply about getting the right parts at the right place at the right time. It’s about designing, maintaining and modifying systems to continuously reduce the demand for logistics so that the logistics and product support that is ultimately required is effective and efficient. Enhancing energy efficiency makes sense on so many levels.  Parts management, standardization, use of common components are powerful enablers, and each can directly impact future logistics footprint requirements. Same goes for built-in test vs. new test equipment decisions. Seek to minimize proliferation of peculiar support equipment whenever possible, and instead seek to leverage common support equipment and hand tools -- and then only those that are absolutely necessary. Remember that each of these important decisions will have profound ramifications on future maintenance requirements and operations & support cycle costs – often for many decades into the future.


7.     Technical data is more than engineering drawings. The vast majority of acquisition professionals intuitively know this, of course, but it is worth collectively reminding ourselves every now and again. MIL-STD-31000 Technical Data Packages defines the Technical Data Package (TDP) as “a technical description of an item adequate for supporting an acquisition strategy, production, and engineering and logistics support. The description defines the required design configuration or performance requirements, and procedures required to ensure adequacy of item performance. It consists of applicable technical data such as models, drawings, associated lists, specifications, standards, patterns, performance requirements, quality assurance provisions, software documentation and packaging details. Because most every acquisition discipline has a role to play and stake in technical data development or management, encourage you to check out Chapter 7 of the IPS Element Guidebook for further insights.


8.     Actual operating environments often do not turn out to be what was originally envisioned. Weapon systems have this fascinating tendency to be operated and employed in environments and at rates, and in conditions that somehow frequently seem to be different than what was originally intended, required, or expected. As the old expression goes, “Your mileage may vary!” Or to quote another old adage: "Semper Gumby" (Ever Flexible!).


9.     PBL is a powerful force multiplier. Defined as “an outcome-based prod­uct support strategy that plans and delivers an integrated, affordable performance solution designed to optimize system readiness,” when properly applied, Performance Based Life Cycle Product Support (PBL) support strategies have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to improve system availability, drive reliability improvements, enhance warfighter support, tackle process inefficien­cies, proactively mitigate obsoles­cence and DMSMS issues, and often reduce O&S costs in the process. In short, PBL is an important and highly integrative enabler of life cycle man­agement success. According to a recent Defense AT&L Magazine article, “the Department spends more than $90 billion on sustainment every year. A conservative estimate of savings that could result from broadly transitioning to PBL sustainment across the DoD ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent—every year!” This compelling data is an important reason the USD(AT&L) said in his 14 May 12 “Endorsement of Next-Generation Performance-Based Logistics Strategies” memo that “appropriate use of Performance-Based Logistics (PBLs) will help to achieve affordable sustainment strategies and is a method for achieving our Better Buying Power (BBP) goals.”  Systems engineering in general, and sustaining engineering in particular are integral aspects to your program’s long-term weapon system product support strategy. Take the time to understand what PBL is and what it can do for your program.


10.  Demand excellence.  Make your life cycle logistics and Product Support Manager (PSM) colleagues part of your team, and at the same time, be an integral part of theirs. Coach them, mentor them, and facilitate their understanding of the systems engineering process – and why it matters. While they may not necessarily always be technical experts, or even have a systems engineering background, ensure they are part of key system design and design trade decisions, technical reviews, and configuration management decisions.  Remember, we’re all in this together.  Work together. Keep it simple. Collaborate. And perhaps most importantly of all, communicate, communicate, and communicate!


What do you think? On-target? Off the mark? What did I miss?


On a related note, lest this blog post led you to believe this was some sort of a one-way monolog, think again. Alignment between our two communitiies demands a thoughful, ongoing, and interactive dialog. Watch for an upcoming blog post that turns the tables by focusing on things that great product support managers (PSM) know about systems engineering. It’s an integrated world out there, folks! Successful acquisition outcomes demand it!