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What Is the Design Structure Matrix?

By Jo Dunaway
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Design Structure Matrix (DSM) is a project management tool that aids in business analysis and in managing projects. DSM makes the processes of management easier to visualize, allowing for identifying and representing the elements in a project, keeping track of cyclic task dependencies as well as task flows, and aiding in analyzing how and where to make improvements in the dependencies between systems. The Design Structure Matrix management tool can produce a good flow of information between departments so that each department, knowing what progress other departments have made, can plan accordingly. DSM is also used as a problem-solver in the development of software and systems architecture. DSM has been used in many of the top blue-chip companies since its development in the 1970s, as it has proven to be beneficial in problem-solving and making improvements to organizations. Design Structure Matrix is sometimes called Design Precedence Matrix, Dependency Structure Matrix, and the Problem Solving Matrix (PSM).

In a departure from the usual project management programs that produce pages and pages of circles and arrows depicting a workflow chart in the development of a piece of technology, DSM tracks instead the information flows between departments and thus can reduce a 50-page workflow chart to one page that is easy to ready and can be easily modified if necessary. Thus, systems engineering analysis and project management planning can be aided as all of the subsystems and modules in complex systems can be depicted and the information flow between them mapped. As the depictions of large complex systems take shape, patterns start to emerge in feedback loops. These patterns can then be analyzed by matrix-based analysis to produce the guidance for improvements to the system as a whole.

Measures for adaptations can be managed efficiently within an organization using Design Structure Matrix. When a component in a design is changed, due to the interdependencies of the other components of the design, there needs to be an information flow that instructs the departments in charge of these other components of the changes they need to make to their components accordingly. Managers can use the DSM to plan changes, map risks, and know the resultant costs in people, resources, and time, to determine whether to make changes and, if so, in what manner to make the changes. As DSM highlights iterations, tasks in sequence and information flows, it helps team managers to streamline their processes. The Design Structure Matrix is now used in various industries such as electronics technology design and production, automotive, aerospace, building construction and real estate development planning, among others, and as it is further developed through projects at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, and the University of Illinois, more uses for it are found.

In system design, the Design Structure Matrix creates a clean programming architecture that produces a blueprint of software. Developers can depict design rules allowing and disallowing dependencies and produce a contextual map of the dependencies between subsystems and their dependencies on the design rules. If a developer then makes a change in a design rule, he can track the resultant changes to all of the subsets within the architecture inheriting this change. Capabilities such as these, in the DSM, create opportunities for great specificity in keeping components independent, mapping and maintaining hidden subsystems, and even managing the usage of external libraries.

There are at least a half-dozen software programs in existence for using DSM as tools in research and development, and nearly a dozen or more for DSM as tools in commercial industries. Some of these came about through research at MIT, Harvard, and University of Illinois and some have been developed through usage at the Engineering Design Center, University of Cambridge, and government agencies such as the NASA Langley Research Center. All of these programs integrate DSM into other business and research software for their individual research and industry needs. These programs interface with other office, spreadsheet and data processing programs on the market and can be adapted to similar industries that adopt usage of the Design Structure Matrix in the future.

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