ESD.36 | Fall 2012 | Graduate

System Project Management


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Synopsis

The class System Project Management (SPM) is focused on teaching methods and tools for planning and managing complex product and system development projects. We assume that the enterprise has already chosen what product or system to develop, (Such upfront issues are covered in ESD.34 System Architecture, among other courses.) so that the class can focus on the preparation, planning, monitoring and adaptation of projects. The class is organized into six loosely interwoven modules.

The first module covers traditional and new project planning and simulation techniques such as the critical path method (CPM), project evaluation and review technique (PERT), design structure matrices (DSM) and critical chain (CC). This planning-centric view of project management exposes not only the capabilities, but also the limitations of traditional PM methods and tools.

The second module introduces system dynamics (SD) in the context of large projects. Unfortunately, real projects rarely unfold exactly as they are planned. System dynamics shows how modeling the rework cycle and the dynamic effects of various external parameters as well as the impact of corrective actions taken by management during the project can simulate the evolution of projects.

The third module presents four real world case studies to illustrate the issues associated with complex projects. The projects are chosen from a variety of industries (automotive, aerospace, construction, oil & gas exploration, software) to allow the students to see the previously discussed methods in action, but also to start appreciating the importance of strategically and tactically managing projects with emphasis on project risks.

The fourth module is focused on ways in which projects that are already underway can be monitored and tracked in terms of cost, schedule and technical progress. Risk management techniques for identifying, tracking and mitigating risks are discussed. Uncertainty can also be turned into opportunity by embedding real options in projects to maximize project value.

The fifth module discusses various forms of project organizations, the challenges of managing international projects with geographically dispersed teams as well as human aspects of project work. This year Prof. Braha will bring in some of his research on complexity in project organizations.

Finally, in the sixth module we provide pointers to important resources for project management, issues of certification, project management software tools as well as a list of empirical factors that are known to affect project success and failure. These will be presented and debated in class. Student project presentations will round out the class and offer an opportunity to tap into the collective experience and insights of the participants.

Learning Objectives

The class is specifically designed for students in the System Design and Management (SDM) program and therefore assumes that you already have a basic knowledge of project management. Ideally, you will have already managed one or more projects yourself and will therefore understand the fundamental tensions between technical scope, cost, schedule and risk.

The overall objective of this class is to introduce advanced principles, methods and tools for project management in a realistic engineering context, such that they can be taken back to the workplace to improve your ability to manage complex product and system development projects.

The detailed learning objectives are to:

  1. Introduce advanced methods and tools of project management :
    1. CPM/PERT
    2. Design Structure Matrix
    3. System Dynamics
    4. Critical Chain
    5. Discrete Event Simulation
    6. Earned Value Management
  2. Understand realistic application of methods (strengths, limitations) and strategic issues
    1. Industry Examples (interspersed)
    2. Case Studies
    3. Risk Management
    4. Real Options in Projects
  3. Obtain an appreciation for organizational and human aspects in
    1. Project Organizations
    2. Program Management—managing multiple projects in parallel
    3. International Project Management (geographically dispersed teams)
    4. Project Manager soft skills and typical profiles
  4. Learn from each other through
    1. Class Discussions
    2. Project Assignments
    3. Homeworks


This is not a class on how to use commercial project management software (e.g. Microsoft Project). This course does not lead to an official certification as a project manager. Such courses are available from professional societies such as the Project Management Institute (PMI).

In contrast to traditional classes on the subject of project management we will emphasize strategic issues and scenarios that cannot be fully predicted such as task iterations, unplanned rework, perceived versus actual progress and misalignments between work breakdown structures, product architectures and organizations. As an SDM alumnus/alumna you will likely be in a leadership position where you will spend more time thinking about strategic and tactical issues than perform detailed operational planning yourself.


We plan to include discussion related to your own project management experiences. We hope to accomplish this in several ways:

  1. Class discussions will revolve around your experiences in industrial practice. Several times during a lecture we will stop for discussion points. Your level of activity during discussions will affect your participation grade.
  2. We will also introduce concept questions during class. These are mainly multiple-choice questions that check for conceptual understanding and can be answered by electronic means in real time. Please bring your laptop or PDA/iPad to every lecture so that you can participate in the concept questions. The concept questions are also an automated means for us to take attendance. Both local and distance students can participate in the concept questions by entering their responses at the short URLs provided during lecture.
  3. We would like to steer the lecture content and focus to those aspects that interest a majority of the class beyond the standard, planned material. For this purpose the TA will conduct a number of informal polls several times during the semester.
  4. We welcome SDM student contributions to specific aspects of the course where you feel particularly competent or where you wish to share unusual project management experiences with your peers. Such contributions can take the form of short prepared speeches, additional readings or mini-presentations throughout the term. Please contact the instructors or TA if you wish to contribute in this manner.
  5. The project assignment will allow you to directly apply one or more of the advanced methods or concepts such as DSM, SD or Critical Chain to a development situation at your company. Alternatively, you may want to analyze in-depth the reasons for failure or success of past or ongoing complex product development projects. ‘The “Projects” page’ contains the titles of a sample of past class projects.

Class Operations

  • The class will meet from 3:00 to 4:30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays according to the class schedule.
  • There is no regularly scheduled recitation.
  • As your instructors, we are trying to be responsive to your needs. Since many students are off-campus, regular office hours may not work well. Based on past experience, e-mail seems to be most effective. Please email the TAs first, who will bundle the comments and questions. The instructor(s) will then respond via email, by posting a response to the class site or by addressing some important questions in the next session.
  • We can follow up with phone, personal meetings or email as appropriate. We will make every effort to respond within 72 hours. If our schedules require us to be away we will keep you informed and provide alternate contacts.
  • Homework should be uploaded to the class site according to the standard procedure by 10 p.m. on the day by which it is due. Extensions must be requested from the instructors at least 48 hours ahead of the due date. A master solution to the homework will be posted within one week after the due date. After the master solution has been posted there will be no credit awarded.
  • Lecture notes for the current lecture will be posted on the class site no later than 12:00 noon the day of the class. Slides will be numbered sequentially which should help especially the distance students to follow along.
  • Distance learning can be challenging, especially with a large group with many different sites. If you are having difficulty hearing or seeing, please speak up and let us know during class or send an instant message or email to the TAs.


6 Homeworks (10% each) 60%
Term Project 25%
Active Participation 15%

All team members will receive the same grade for their joint term project.

Active participation means regular attendance of lectures, answering of the concept questions during class, offering suggestions or questions during lectures and relaying of personal experiences to others in the context of the class.

The class is graded according to the letter system A-F. Standard MIT grading policy applies.

Please bring and use your name cards during every lecture.

Please pay attention during class and use your laptop to take notes and answer the concept questions.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2012
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Projects with Examples
Design Assignments