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What Are the Methodologies You Use to Manage Complexity?

One of the most powerful methodologies I use is the Unified Modeling Language (UML). Though its focus is object oriented software development, my teams and I have found it useful in modeling systems of all kinds -- even mechatronic systems. In fact, I've found mechanical engineers to be some of the most enthusiastic adopters, since UML provides a format for describing objects, their properties, and interactions -- and those objects can be physical as well as virtual. Using tools such as Rational Software Architect to support the use of UML provides evolving models for testing assumptions, continually updates documentation, and a high degree of automated code generation.

LEAN is another major influence on my approach to product development in general and specifically to managing design complexity. The concepts and practices of LEAN engineering drive out waste. Given that designs tend to be over-engineered in their early phases, driving out waste also drives out a great deal of complexity.

Along the same lines, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) exercises are a powerful tool. I lead them early and often throughout the design process. Although their main purpose is to analyze potential failure modes within a system, they force a reexamination of the current design iteration (with the help of disinterested participants), streamlining the design while eliminating potential failure modes. And, of course, it results in a more reliable product.

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