Omega Guide 4

The Six Honest Serving Men - Systems Project Definition

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Issue 1.0
Febuary 2013


The Six Honest Serving Men - Systems Project Definition


Some common failure threads across systems projects include:

  • Inadequate understanding of the need, leading to poorly defined and/or incomplete requirements
  • Lack of systems engineering, discipline and authority
  • Lack of technical planning and oversight
  • Stovepipe developments with late integration
  • Lack of subject matter expertise at the integration level
  • Lack of availability of systems integration facilities
  • Incomplete, obsolete, or inflexible architectures
  • Low visibility of risk
  • Technology maturity overestimates.

The lack of proper planning is quite often at the heart of these failures. The problem, and advantage, of not planning was excellently captured by the late Sir John Harvey Jones:

“Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”

So how do we ensure we are setting the right goals for our system?.......and we have the right plans in place to meet them?

An Honest Answer - The Six Honest Serving Men

“I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are: What and Why and When and How and Where and Who”. (Rudyard Kipling, from "The Elephant's Child" in Just So Stories).

In defining a project, the application of these six questions can initiate the creative processes and allow one to better examine a problem space.

By using these simple questions : What, Why, When, How , Where, and Who you can explore the project’s problem space and define the statement of need.

Using The Six Honest Serving Men To Explore The Problem Space

Use the six simple questions to explore the project problem space by first opening up and then exploring the different viewpoints. Then start to explore candidate solutions to see if this changes or challenges your perception of the problem. Finally, the questions, viewpoints and candidate solutions can be organised into a framework that provides rigour to the analysis and assists in identifying gaps in the understanding.

This approach is equally applicable by taking a basic pen and paper (flip chart or whiteboard) approach or by using computer-based tools like mind mapping and architectural frameworks.

Open Up

Develop your understanding of the problem space and project context by opening up using the six simple questions. For example, from your role as the project planner:

Question Answer
Why is this project being undertaken? Motivation for the project - List of project goals and objectives.
Who are the project stakeholders? List of Customers, Actors and Owners.
What does the project need to deliver? List of important deliverables and outcomes.
How is the project going to be conducted? List of project processes.
When do key deliverables and dependencies happen? List of events.
Where do these key events take place? List of project locations.

In order to open up you need to let ideas and Information flow. This can be facilitated by using techniques like brainstorming.

Remember the golden rules of brainstorming:

  • Focus on Quantity
  • Withhold Criticism
  • Welcome Unusual Ideas
  • Combine & Improve Ideas.
golden rules

Different Viewpoints

Now using the same set of simple questions, explore the problem from different viewpoints.

How does this change the response to the questions and your understanding of the problem?

For more information on viewpoints take a look at the guide Z4 on Soft Systems Methodology and the Root Definition.

Problem Space

For example, from perspective of the user:

Question Answer
Why does the user need what the project is delivering? Motivation of the user.
Who else will be using the system? List of users.
What does the system need to do for the user? List of important functions and information.
How is the system going to be used/misused? List of use and misuse cases.
When does system need to be operational? Implementation Schedule.
Where does the system need to be used? List of system implementation locations, e.g. Usable network

Candidate Solutions

Now start to think about potential solutions. Do these candidate solutions challenge your understanding of the problem?

Candidate solutions developed can be used to help test the requirements and our understanding of the requirements. For example, each solution can be mapped against our understanding of the requirement using techniques like QFD, see Omega 3 guide.

Organise Into A Framework

Think about how you might organise the questions, viewpoints and candidate solutions. Does this help frame the problem and solution? Does it help define gaps in your understanding of the problem and potential solution(s)?

Now use your thoughts to organise the questions, viewpoints and ideas into a conceptual framework or strategy map. This helps to identify gaps in your analysis.

For example, John Zachman of IBM used this approach on IT Systems which lead the way to his Zachman Enterprise Architecture Framework.

See guide Z8 on System Architecture for more information on frameworks .

Framework Examples

Plan Your Project

Your six honest serving men analysis of the project problem space can be used as an input to, or as part of, your project planning process. The project planning process involves the following activities:

  • Define the project
  • Plan project resources
  • Plan project technical and quality management
  • Activate the project

Project Planning Context Diagram

Project Planning Context Diagram

For more information on the Project Planning Process please refer to:

INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook – A Guide For System Life Cycle Processes And Activities, Version 3.2.2, October 2011, p177-197.

ISO/IEC 15288:2008 – Systems and Software Engineering – System Life Cycle Processes, p25.

This leaflet is intended as a working guide to systems project definition, and is adapted from material presented by Dr Doug Cowper and Dr Terry Winnington at the INCOSE UK one day event “Simple Systems Techniques That Work”, held on the 3rd March 2010.

This series of working guides is produced by members of the UK Chapter of INCOSE. For further information, advice and links to helpful websites go to:

Members can download copies of this leaflet and other Systems Engineering resources online at:

For more information about the worldwide Systems Engineering professional community, go to:

Series editor:
Lead author: Dr Doug Cowper (Cleave Systems Ltd)

© 2013 INCOSE UK Ltd
ω4 Issue 1.0 February 2013