Transforming from Office Products to MBSE, Innoslate® as a Systems Engineering Research Tool

Often people will ask me: “Who is your major competitor?” My usual response is “Microsoft Office.” I don’t say this because MS Office is a bad tool … it is not. It is a very good tool for publishing information. I use it often and have become quite the expert in using it to write books, papers, accounting, and presentations. But for systems engineering, it’s not the right toolset. Unfortunately, most people trying to perform SE tasks use MS Office because that’s the only tool they have. It’s cheap and already approved for use by management, but it does not provide all the capabilities SEs need. You can’t easily perform the kinds of analyses we need, such as functional analysis, simulation, requirements analysis, and risk analysis. That’s not to say that you can’t perform these kinds of analyses in the same way as your parents (or grandparents). They did it, but usually it was with armies of people. They did it with relatively simpler systems. They did it using libraries with librarians to help them find the things they needed. If you think I am exaggerating, I actually saw this in effect as late as 1986, before we had extensive implementation of personal computers.

But with the widespread availability of networked, high performance computer systems providing ready access to amazing processing capabilities, and the breadth of the worldwide web, we also have new tools that can do much more. And it’s a good thing, because at the same time this technology has caused system complexity to grow exponentially. We no longer have the “armies of people” and “librarians” available to help us do the work. So we have to do more with less.

So, let’s say your management has finally realized that you need better tools, or they just want to be “fully buzzword compliant” by jumping on the MBSE train. Now how are you going to come up to speed on a new toolset, while still continuing to meet cost and schedule?

The purpose of this paper is to help you make the shift from products like MS Office to a true MBSE tool: Innoslate®. Some of these strategies may be useful in migrating from Office to other tools, but other tools really don’t have all the features you need and when you put together the set you will have to spend a lot more on those other tools. Money being spent isn’t just the cost of the tools, but the people costs of operating them. Much like Office, even the toolsets being offered by others are really just a set of individual tools that were loosely “integrated” to provide a package. That’s why they have so many “plug-ins.”

So on with the strategies.

Strategy 1: Start Slow

Just like you can’t eat an elephant all at once (and I don’t recommend eating elephants at all!), you should migrate your information a piece at a time. For example, perhaps you have a big library of Visio diagrams and you want to reuse in Innoslate®. You might say, “well does Innoslate® have a way to import diagrams from Visio?” The answer is no. The reason we don’t is that tools like Visio are just drawing tools that don’t provide “semantic” meaning. One definition of this term is: “of, relating to, or arising from the different meanings of words or other symbols.” In other words, drawings require a significant set of rules to enable them to represent the information. An example of this from flowcharting is the use of a diamond to represent a decision or a rectangle to represent a process. Both the writer and reader of these diagrams must fully understand those representations for the chart to have any meaning. Unfortunately, with a pure drawing tool like Visio, people will use these symbols incorrectly or in different ways, which makes it difficult for the reader to really know what the writer meant. We have the same problem with unstructured words as well. Writers will use obscure words or use the words incorrectly, which interferes with the communication.

This problem is why MBSE has taken off as a concept to enhance the communications. The tools can help enforce the rules for diagrams. The diagrams can even be analyzed automatically by the computer algorithms to suggest improvements to the diagrams to make them more compliant to the rules.

So, what does this mean? It means that the diagrams as drawn in Visio are likely in error. Just moving the boxes and lines over to another tool will also bring all the errors with them. What should you do?

We recommend taking a few of the diagrams you are using right now, put them on one side of your desk (or in your second monitor, if you have one), and start a new diagram in Innoslate®. We recommend starting with the Action Diagram for a flow or process chart. You will need to interpret the information that’s on the current diagram to create the new one. You will want to take advantage of the capability in Innoslate® to decompose Actions, thus simplifying large diagrams. That allows you to identify subprocesses, which may be repeated in various parts of the diagram. In this way, you will gain a better understanding of the tool and the limitations (rules) that govern the diagrams.


Strategy 2: Only Start on a New Task

In this approach you keep legacy information separate or use the Innoslate® Artifact class entities to store the files from previous work, so you can find them if you need them. If you don’t have a strong requirements document from your customer (and you usually don’t), we recommend again starting with the Action Diagram and capture the current operational or business processes using that approach. The purpose of these models is to identify where the problem areas exist and then you can postulate solutions to those problems.


Strategy 3: Start with an Innoslate® Workshop

An Innoslate® Workshop provides a means to make learning Innoslate® easier by having our trainers work directly with your problem as the basis for the training. The training is tailored to your processes, situation (such as the phase of development), and problem so that enables the training to have greater relevance to your people. It has the added benefit of helping you get started with solving your particular problem. Don’t worry about us knowing too much about your business. We are happy to sign any appropriate non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and our personnel have the necessary clearances to help you with your problem at any level of classification. SPEC Innovations is a woman-owned small business, so the chances of a conflict of interest is negligible.


Start Any Time

This in a sense is not a strategy, because it applies regardless of the situation. Timing is never perfect for moving from one way of doing things to another. The sooner you get started the sooner you can reap the benefits of MBSE. Just get in there and apply any or all of the strategies above to get started. Let us help you today. We will help you make it as painless as possible. Ben Franklin said: “There are no gains without pains.” It applies here as well. Just like starting your exercise program in the new year, the sooner you start, the sooner you feel better.