The opening talk on Monday at INCOSE 2008, “Crossing Borders by Applying Systems Engineering”, was by Bert Klerk, the CEO of ProRail, who runs the railway system of the Netherlands. Behind Japan and Switzerland, this country is 3rd in the list of most densely used railroad networks. They have 6500 km of track and because they are a land of much water, 4500 bridges to cross. This is clearly a large system which has had great success from applying systems engineering principles.
This is not the first time I’ve heard a talk about a project for Europe’s rail systems. I find it to be a very interesting topic, and though I have never worked on a railway project, I can see the challenges so clearly. This talk highlighted an example of a track to be laid that in particular had to cross a small river. They put out bids to contractors to see who could most cleverly navigate this river while staying under budget; and the winner’s solution was implemented. But the point here is systems engineering on this scale involves hundreds of stakeholders. When dealing with these large scale systems – you cannot just think about the users at all, the scope spans way beyond that. It’s not just those people using the tracks, those operating and maintaining them, but also those who are impacted by the train system deployed – the town people who enjoy the river. And while they are not direct users, you cannot ignore them – they might actually put up big roadblocks to deploying the system.
Anyway, if you can imagine how hard it is to get 200 users aligned – now imagine you have 30 types of stakeholders with a couple hundred of each and most of them will never actually use the thing you are building. Try to keep that group satisfied!