September 15, 2011

How to Manage the Complex Process of Building a Naval Ship - or Any Multifaceted Project

Research by Dr. Tyson Browning

Imagine all the thousands upon thousands of parts that make up a naval warship. Now think of all the thousands of people and projects it takes to put all those parts together to build the ship on time, on budget and in perfect working order. Dr. Browning came up with a technique to use a tool called the design structure matrix (DSM) to master critical information required to understand, design and improve naval ship-building systems.

His research, “DSM Methods and Applications for Naval Ship Design,” garnered him a grant of $302,230.

“Because no one person knows enough to design today’s complex naval ships, techniques for managing information, and getting that information to the right place at the right time, are imperative,” Dr. Browning said. “If you tried to put all of the processes for building a ship in a flow chart, it would take up hundreds of feet of wall space. With the DSM, you can fit it in a fraction of the space.”

The primary benefit of DSM is that it is a graphic, a square N x N matrix showing all the inter-related parts, people, or activities, mapped along a diagonal with inputs and outputs off the diagonal. DSM provides a highly compact, easily scalable and intuitively readable representation of the ship-building architecture.

The cells along the diagonal of the DSM matrix represent the basic elements. The surrounding cells represent the flow of information to, from and between the elements. Columns and rows reveal inputs and outputs.

DSM can organize products, organizations, or processes, or combine all three. By modeling the ship (product), the organizations that design them, and the process by which the design occurs, DSM can provide better coordination and integration.

For the ship, the improvement might be to increase the modularity of the parts and systems. For the organizations, the improvements may include grouping individuals and teams to facilitate channels of information flow. For the complex process of designing the ship, the DSM improvements could include minimizing feedback loops that result in repetition and rework.

“Just building the DSM sparks important conversations among those involved and provides a better big-picture view of the situation,” Dr. Browning said.

Dr. Browning has been working with DSM for the past 17 years, including time spent applying it to complex system design processes in the defense industry. While his research for the Navy will primarily focus on DSM, including the principles of DSM, how it can be applied to various projects, challenges and lessons learned, and key success factors, he will also look at other methods that can support the design of a naval ship.

“DSM is one of several ways to represent a model of a complex system,” Dr. Browning said. “It has the advantage of being concise and easily analyzed, which makes it a great tool to have in your tool kit, but it is not the hammer for every nail. I’ll be looking at ways that DSM can be used in conjunction with other methods of system modeling.”

Dr. Browning will continue to attend ship design process workshops sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and meetings of the Architecting Manufacturing Industries and Systems for Adaptability (AMISA) consortium in Europe, as well as study cases from industry and government applications with emphasis on emerging applications in naval ship design.

“Few faculty receive such substantial awards for their research, especially from outside sources. This award from the Office of Naval Research is  an exceptional accomplishment for Dr. Browning, the Neeley School and TCU,” said O. Homer Erekson, John V. Roach Dean of the Neeley School of Business at TCU.

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