Engineering your way out of the recession

Like you, I have been thinking a lot about the recession.  We all want to know how to move ourselves to the other side, where things are somewhat normal (the old normal, not the new one).  Like usual, my mind immediately goes to products.  To me, having the right products is vital to pulling ourselves out of this thing.  There is nothing novel in this thinking;  I think we all agree that products are important.  But, there are two follow-on questions that are important.  First, what makes products “right” to move you quickly to the other side?  Second, do you have the capability to engineer the “right” products?

The first question – what makes products “right” for these times?  Capacity is important to understanding what makes products right.  Capacity utilization is at record lows with most industries suffering from a significant capacity glut.  With decreased sales and idle machines, customers are no longer interested in products that improve productivity of their existing product lines because they can simply run their idle machines more.  And, they are not interested in buying more capacity (your products) at a reduced price.  They will simply run their idle machines more.  You can’t offer an improvement of your same old product that enables customers to make their same old products a bit faster and you can’t offer them your same old products at a lower price.  However, you can sell them products that enable them to capture business they currently do not have.  For example, enable them to manufacture products that their idle machines CANNOT make at all.  To do that means your new products must do something radically different than before; they must have radically improved functionality or radically new features.  This is what makes products right for these times.

On to the second question – do you have the capability to engineer the right products?  It’s always a great idea to ask for products with radical improvements in functionality, but it’s another thing altogether to create products with radical improvements – to engineer them.  You must have good engineers if you are to create these types of products.  It’s good if you have been able to hold onto your engineers through the recession, that’s a good start.  If you were not, that’s bad — you must get some.

Designing products with radical improvements is difficult even for the best engineers.  Your engineers are bright but have not been taught how to design these products.  Usually they design them by instinct which is a root cause for the low hit rate and schedule misses.  Everyone is afraid of falling short of the specification and missing the schedule; going after radical improvements is a scary business.  It is scary because success rides on the instinctive skills of the engineer.  But there is a better way.  Engineers can be taught to do this work.

It is my experience that the toughest part of solving technical problems is defining the right problem to solve.  Yet, we don’t take the time to define the problem well enough.  It’s usually a ready-fire-aim approach to problem solving that is long on activity but short on progress.  Paradoxically, the engineers must slow down in order to make faster progress.  The engineers must be taught to painstakingly define the physics of technical problems using simple language (simple nouns and verbs) and simple block diagrams.  This is not easy.  It takes a lot of work to help (force) the engineers to shed the complexity to reveal the simple truth.  And, it takes a lot of energy to calm the managers who think nothing is going on during the problem definition phase.  Managers are more comfortable watching activity than watching thinking.

In these difficult times it is especially important (and especially difficult) to give your engineers the tools, time, and training to achieve radical improvements.  But take comfort in an engineering paradox – sometimes slower is faster.

One Response to “Engineering your way out of the recession”

  • Nick:


    Great article about defining the root causes of the problem before trying to solve them. I use the block diagram method extensively in my daily work. People think its slow and painstaking at first, but after a few successful iterations they begin the make it part of their daily work as well.

    Similarly, Larry Burns, outgoing Chief of R&D at General Motors, who is credited with GM’s massive leap forward in the area of fuel cell hybrid powertrains and vehicle communications was recently quoted:

    “…focus as hard on defining the questions as you do on trying to answer them. I have found that once you really understand the question, you are 90 percent of the way home. In addition, you need to recognize that in the real world, the questions are often ill-defined, data are often messy and methods frequently do not apply exactly as they have been taught. You will need to learn to deal with this ambiguity. Finally, great opportunities lie at the interface between disciplines, so be sure to take a systems approach in your work.”

    Thanks again for writing.

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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