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Delineating Systems, Products and Tools

People often confuse the concepts of systems, products, and tools. To facilitate our discussion, let’s examine each of these terms in detail.

System Context

We defined the term system earlier in this section. A system may consist of two or more integrated elements whose combined—synergistic—purpose is to achieve mission objectives that may not be effectively or efficiently accomplished by each element on an individual basis. These systems typically include humans, products, and tools to varying degrees. In general, human-made systems require some level of human resources for planning, operation, intervention, or support.

Product Context

Some systems are created as a work product by other systems. Let’s define the context of product: a product, as an ENABLING element of a larger system, is typically a physical device or entity that has a specific capability—form, fit, and function—with a specified level of performance.

Products generally lack the ability—meaning intelligence—to self-apply themselves without human assistance. Nor can products achieve the higher level system mission objectives without human intervention in some form. In simple terms, we often relate to equipment-based products as items you can procure from a vendor via a catalog order number. Contextually, however, a product may actually be a vendor’s “system” that is integrated into a User’s higher-level system. Effectively, you create a system of systems (SoS).


1. A hammer, as a procurable product has form, fit, and function but lacks the ability to apply its self to hammering or removing nails.

2. Ajet aircraft, as a system and procurable vendor product, is integrated into an airline’s system and may possess the capability, when programmed and activated by the pilot under certain conditions, to fly.

Tool Context

Some systems or products are employed as tools by higher level systems. Let’s define what we mean by a tool. A tool is a supporting product that enables a user or system to leverage its own capabilities and performance to more effectively or efficiently achieve mission objectives that exceed the individual capabilities of the User or system.


1. A simple fulcrum and pivot, as tools, enable a human to leverage their own physical strength to displace a rock that otherwise could not be moved easily by one human.

2. A statistical software application, as a support tool, enables a statistician to efficiently analyze large amounts of data and variances in a short period of time.

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