July 2018

Design Structure Matrix for Complex Systems


In today’s fast paced world, businesses are always looking to understand and streamline their complex systems to become more efficient and effective. One great way to do this is with the Design Structure Matrix (DSM), which offers a unique view of complex systems. DSM analysis allows organizations to optimize the processes of product and system design.

"Engineering work can be procedural and systematic. People think of engineering as a matter of always developing something new, unlike business operations, where you do something over and over again. But we’ve learned that while you may repeat engineering work five or 20 times in your career instead of 100 times a day, there’s a process there. And if you can capture that process, you can improve it.” Steven Eppinger, Professor of Management Science and Engineering Systems, MIT Sloan School

The Design Structure Matrix is a simple, compact, and visual representation of a system or project in the form of a square matrix. This visualization provides insights for system engineers and managers who must design, organize, implement, and maintain the system and its relationships. DSMs are a way of simplifying complex engineering tasks in order to make them more efficient.

DSM analysis helps companies turn product design into a productive routine, rather than an ad-hoc process that is continually being re-invented. Repeating steps is necessary in some projects to make sure things are done correctly and DSM analysis can provide insights into the difference between necessary repetitions and wasteful ones.

Overall, DSMs show the same information as a graph but in a more scalable, concise way that highlights important patterns. As a system grows, graphs begin to look like a giant ball of mud whereas the DSM maintains its readability. DSM analysis groups elements according to their membership in a module or team. This allows insights into minimizing system disruption, which increases system robustness and resilience.

How to Read a DSM

DSMs are graphical in nature and use a matrix display format. The figure below shows a simple DSM model of a system with 12 elements. The cells along the diagonal represent the percentage in each element. Examining any row in the matrix reveals all of the outputs from the element in that row, which in turn are inputs to other elements. Looking down a column shows all the inputs to the element in that column, which in turn are outputs from other elements.

For example, reading across row 3 we see that “Determine Manufacturability” provides output to “Determine Cost” and “Determine Load”. Reading down column 5, we see that “Determine Power Need” receives input from “Determine Cost.”

Design Structure Matrix

Uses of the Design Structure Matrix

There are three basic uses of the DSM: system design, development process, and organizational planning.

System Design

A system design DSM maps components of a complex system in relation to each other. An example is to understand the parts of a computer and how they interact. Using the DSM, you can visualize the system in new and insightful ways allowing you to find inefficiencies. You will better understand when there is a problem with a system that needs to be fixed. If something needs to be changed, you’ll know which other parts of the system will be affected by that change.

Development Process

The development process DSM maps activities and deliverables required for complex procedures. An example would be to streamline the process of real estate construction. Some of the benefits include allowing you to understand the design iterations that will be required to complete the process. You can also smooth out the flow of information by seeing everything that needs to happen and all of the interactions in one place. This leads to being able to get things done faster and more reliably.

Organizational Planning

Organizational planning maps people, teams, and departments that work together to execute complex business workflows. One example is to define the best way to organize the offices of a company so employees are located geographically based on their job function and who they need to communicate with to complete their assignments. The DSM shows all the relationships in a workflow and provides insights for better alignment, physical co-location, and better connection. This leads to quicker workflows with less costly mistakes.


Design Structure Matrix techniques allow for the management of complexity by focusing on the elements and their relationships of a complex system. DSM analysis has proven to be extremely valuable in understanding, designing, and optimizing complex systems including system design, development processes, and organizational planning. Lattix’s complex system solution provides the ability to analyze and optimize your complex system, conduct impact analysis, and measure, track and report on the changes in your system.

For more information, read about Lattix Support for Complex Systems.