The System Is the Solution

In the late 1970s, the AT&T Bell System rolled out a marketing campaign around the slogan, “The system is the solution.” Part of its marketing copy at the time was a statement that, “To solve your problems, we have to understand your problems.” Whether you recall the days of Ma Bell with fondness, loathing, or not at all, few would deny that there were smart people working in that corporation, and that they got some things dramatically right. One of them was their understanding of the value of a systems approach to meeting their customers' needs.

One of my job-related roles is to run a team of Product Definers for the RF Solutions Business Unit. This team has the responsibility to understand at a very deep level the technical requirements of our customers. This means we have to understand the whole system in detail, even when we only deliver part of that system. This is a challenging job in any serious semiconductor company, requiring a good understanding of what is feasible in terms of technical tradeoffs, as well as the ability to get into the shoes of the customers. It necessarily involves spending significant face time with our customers wherever they may be found in the world, and using that time well.

Beyond that, a sufficient understanding often involves exploring interactions and tradeoffs using appropriate behavioral simulation tools. This is a dramatic increase in scope from an earlier time where the philosophy might have been summarized as: Design a better widget, and they will come. These days, the industry focus is on integrated solutions, driven by increasing expectations for miniaturization, low BOM cost, and high reliability.

The higher the level of integration, however, the more decisions are necessarily prebaked into the silicon by the semiconductor vendor, which places greater responsibility on the product definers to get those decisions right. Fundamentally, failure to grasp the system from the customer's perspective results in a failure to specify the most sellable product. Or, as Ma Bell once put it, “To solve your problems, we have to understand your problems.”

Product definition is only one part of an overall Systems Engineering approach to product creation. I really like the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) definition of Systems Engineering, which reads in part:

Systems Engineering is an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.

Bringing analog together is challenging in itself, but bringing the right analog together is not just an integration problem; it's a systems engineering problem which requires all the engineering steps to be done while considering the complete problem .

Is there such a thing as too much requirements analysis before starting a project? How do you ensure fast time to market while making very sure you are building the right thing for the market? Please feel free to share your thoughts below.

7 comments on “The System Is the Solution

  1. Brad Albing
    January 25, 2013

    Charles – back when I was a design engineer, I had tech reps and sales guys dropping by to see what I was working on and what components I needed. Too often, these guys were far more interested in getting me to buy what they had to sell rather than to see and understand my project – and then respond accordingly. So I really get what your discussing here.

  2. Charles Razzell
    January 25, 2013

    Brad, I agree that customers respond much more positively when a sales rep shows a true understanding of the problem. Time is valuable, and it doesn't go down well when the paying customer is educating the vendor in things he could or should know already! On the other hand, there are things vendors can't know without having the right conversations with customers and these kinds of interactions are definitely mutually beneficial, assuming the vendor is otherwise well-qualified.

  3. patrick_m
    January 25, 2013

    There's another dynamic at play here, that is increasingly influencing this customer/supplier dynamic. In the days of Ma Bell, the Internet wasn't a big factor. Now it is, so customers are becoming much more informed about what they need — and what a supplier can provide — even before they get to that supplier. Now, this both good and bad.

    It's good because there's less protocol/handshaking required: the customer can get right to the point and ask much more direct questions. The downside is that the customer comes in with expectations — and assumptions. Those assumptions about a supplier's capabilities and offerings can often prevent a truly productive conversation that encourages the generation of new ideas and a 'holistic' systems solution that may take more time, but in the end could be much more beneficial to the customer, if the skilled supplier contact can get to that level of conversation.



  4. Charles Razzell
    January 26, 2013

    Patrick, I hadn't thought of that before, but what you say makes perfect sense. The internet gives us the power to know at least something about everyone from a distance. A litte knowledge is a dangerous thing since it doesn't come with the same dose of humility as no knowledge does…

    It's interesting to see how much money people and companies are spending on managing their web reputation these days — and with your comment in mind, perhaps they should!

  5. eafpres
    January 27, 2013

    In a previous position, my company had entire business units where 90% of sales were custom solutions.  In particular, EMI (shielding and related products) solutions were mainly designed specifically for customer applications.  The sales process invovled application engineering almost from the start.  In addition, close linkage of sales, application engineering, customer service, and prototyping, among others, were all critical aspects to get customers what they needed.

    One of the negatives of the internet-enabled world is many customers become beholden to commodity managers who many not value the work that goes into understanding the custoemrs problems fully an designing really good solutions.  They look at the end product, go on the web, and find dozens of others who make stuff that “looks” the same, then push pricing.

  6. Charles Razzell
    January 27, 2013

    @eafpres, you sound as though you have seen a very systems-oriented approach to creating value for the customer and you've also seen a very commodity-driven approach. The nature of various technologies dictates to a large degree which of these approaches is most appropriate.

    I don't believe we can force the market to appreciate the value of a full-on, highly customized system approach when that value is not inherently there. You probably wouldn't want to try to sell OpAmps or DRAM that way for example.

    On the other hand, where the engineering challenge is high, and the burden of meeting that challenge is shared by the semiconductor vendor and the equipment manufacturer, that is where it makes sense to offer the added value of co-creation and system solution thinking.

  7. Brad Albing
    March 28, 2013

    And then I switched roles and was on the other side of the table, trying to sell what I had to engineers who knew exactly what they wanted. Tough job.

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