Friday, November 29, 2013

How Engineers Look at Things

As many know, my meteorology degree is from the College of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. I have minors in both engineering and mathematics as well as my degree in meteorology. I have been managing technical people (meteorologists and computer programmers) for more than 35 years.

The item below caught my eye. I am not making a political statement but a management one.

The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.

Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”

The management question, when trying anything new, is “When does reality trump planning?” For the officials overseeing, the preferred answer was “Never.” Every time there was a chance to create some sort of public experimentation, or even just some clarity about its methods and goals, the imperative was to avoid giving the opposition anything to criticize.

At the time, this probably seemed like a way of avoiding early failures. But the project’s managers weren’t avoiding those failures. They were saving them up. The actual site is worse—far worse—for not having early and aggressive testing. Even accepting the crassest possible political rationale for denying opponents a target, avoiding all public review before launch has given those opponents more to complain about than any amount of ongoing trial and error would have.

A second commentary adds,

All appearances to the contrary, the managers involved in this debacle aren’t dumb. But they come from a background — law and politics — where arguments often take the place of reality, and plausibility can be as good as, or better than, truth.

What engineers know that lawyers and politicians often don’t is that in the world of things, as opposed to people, there’s no escaping the sharp teeth of reality. But in law, and especially politics, inconvenient facts are merely inconvenient, something to be rationalized away.

When our country has accomplished great things in the past, there has usually been a great engineer running the program: Hyman Rickover with the nuclear submarine program, or Wernher von Braun with the Apollo space program, for example. Rickover and von Braun were famously stern taskmasters, but they did not substitute wishes for reality.

Which may be why they were able to launch submarines, and rockets that astounded the world. While today, we can’t even launch a website.

Who completely turned around Ford Motor Company? Alan Mulally, an engineer.

While engineers, occasionally with justification, are accused of wanting to "test things to death," the engineering impulse to test things should be encouraged rather than suppressed. Once a reasonable amount of testing has been done, bring everyone together and walk through the product, website, whatever, and go through each function -- in real world conditions -- and make sure it works. Then, and only then, should it move forward.

But, the bottom line is: Management should celebrate finding flaws during the testing stage rather than criticizing. Much better to find the flaw during testing than after the product is launched.

1 comment:

  1. Give me enough time and enough money and I can build anything. That's the Engineer's creed. Unfortunately, time and money are scarce resources.

    What we do need are more engineers that can make good business decisions. In other words, making the most out of scarce resources.


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