Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What taught me about engineering....

I have made some posts before about an idea of needing a more Comprehensive Methodology for Many engineering problems. Spefically, the windmill I choose to tilt at is Sheet Metal Stamping Process Engineering (formability). While I wont user this space to get too far into that topic (you can follow up at the post listed above or in the book Sheet Metal Forming Processes and Constitutive modeling (shameless plug).

But I digress, I have been trying for a while to find an analogy that people would understand for the need and drive of people to be able to digest information based on multiple-dimensional-Decision-Drivers. For most people you could weigh most decisions based on Function-Quality-Cost-Time. We want something done (function), and done well (quality) for a reasonable cost (duh) on time. How well any solution achieves that desire should be measured upon those criteria.

Whenever, we discussed this idea with others; they frequently tell me that either they are not responsible for cost or project time, or that they already have rules and standards in place that are used to govern whether or not they achieve their cost and time goals. This has become an unassailable truth in their minds one which I sought to alter (as we are selling software that aims to address Quality-Cost-LeadTime for sheet metal stamping processes).

Finally, while searching for flights to our international sales meeting I stumbled upon an analogy I think should hit home. showed me the way...

Assuming that arrival time was the most important quality function the flights as shown above are ranked as the best. If departure time was the most important quality metric then the views would be completely different.

Now these flight options must clearly come with different costs. That economic reality is very clear to everybody. But what if the internet did not allow for explicit display of costs? What if our company followed a process flow that stipulated that one department sets financial rules and the other departments had to fit those rules while not knowing the numbers used to generate the rules.

This is not such a far fetched let's imagine how these flight plan engineering rules might look:

  1. Airlines charge more for convenience, therefore direct flights should be avoided for they will cost more
  2. Airlines route to hub airports to optimize on flight capacity, so flights that make use of major hubs will be cheaper (more legs to more hubs are cheaper)
  3. Flights that provide shorter layovers will be marketable at higher prices, longer layovers may be cheaper
With those relatively clear rules in mind, we could narrow the flight options to several viable options. 
  • The American Flight via LGA/JFK
  • The Delta Flight via JFK
  • The United Flight via FRA (and ORD)
  • The Cathay Flight via ORD and HKG
The problem is that with each of these flight options we are having to prioritize without any measurable which rules to follow. Also, we cannot put a value on arriving early or late to the meeting or having to leave home earlier. This is a more common problem than we might realize with our engineers. Our engineers have to make decisions that they know affect costs, but many times without the tools they need to recognize the cost of their decisions.

If we now introduce the cost measurement to the travel example:

We now can see that some of the "rules" did not apply to this particular scenario. The cheapest flight overall did not have the longest layovers and did not have more legs. In fact the flight that by "rules" wisdom the "best" the CATHAY flight that maximized inconvenience and therefore seemed to be the one that would be cheapest was a scant $8000 at the time of this posting. Not to mention that it effectively force the traveler to make enough miles to circumnavigate the globe without actually having the benefit of doing so.

But where HIPMUNK really shines is the further filtering function of AGONY.
With Agony as a filter we can see that the relatively low cost of $1630 a mere $48 dollars more buys us a flight with a shorter layover less agony. The fact that it also has no flight changes in the US may or may-not have any affect on the agony algorithm used, but for me and any seasoned traveler knows that EU member nations on the continent are less of a headache than the average US airport for layovers (Heathrow lately being a major exception).

What did this teach me about engineering?

  • That without a clear methodology for weighing out the multiple dimensions of decision drivers we simply cannot make sound decisions; We will most likely end up shorting one criteria for another
  • If we accept that there will be some compromise we can use background analytics to weigh out many seemingly intangible cost/benefits of the various options that we consider
  • If we did not consider that there were more than one option and thought that the first answer that successfully met the "quality criteria" we may have never recognized these better solutions; imagine if we just took the first flight that got us from A-B on time

Thank to HIPMUNK for not only being my travel search of choice, but for helping me illustrate to my colleagues that our vision of a multi-dimensional decision engine is, in fact, the way to go.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Addressing first order problems with third order solutions

The sign shown in this photo is a none too uncommon sight in the restrooms of many places in the world. Necessitated by frequent blockages of the plumbing when coarse paper towels are flushed.
Placing a sign such as this might seem a solution to the problem at hand but does it address the root of the problem? Sure if people stop putting paper towel in the toilet the problem of the plugged toilets should go away, right? But did it consider why people go to the trouble of walking to the toilet with the paper towel to flush it?

When the problem is that people needed to use the towels instead of a more flushable media to "do their business", is this the most elegant solution? No. If the stalls never run out of favorable paper to use for the toilet duty, does that not keep the towels out of the loo?

In my other life as a sheet metal stamping plant process improvement specialist, we faced an issue where during part shipping "surface lows" appeared in some doors we stamped. The quality manager did a detailed study of the issue and narrowed the occurences to situations where the part was lifted from the conveyor in a certain matter. He wrote a SWI (standard work instruction) imploring the rackers to only handle the part in a certain manner to prevent the issue from cropping up. In fact the only way to fix the problem was to address the forming of the parts several operations earlier.

Now consider this applied to professional issues:
  • When quality issues in the plant keep cropping up; do we dim the lights in the inspection area (even dismantle it; yes, that really happened once). Or should we find the root cause? 
  • If warantee costs skyrocket; do we change the terms of our warantees? Or do we improve our product? 
  • When the scuttlebutt in the work place is critical of ones performance; do we ask the staff to limit intra-personnel discussions? Or should we mine the criticism as valuable fodder for improvement or change?
  • If the blank washer is leaving too many particles of "dirt and slivers" on the sheet metal; do we uninstall the blank washers? Or find the source of the impurities that the blank washer imparted to the sheet metal?

Take a look around your place. Are you asking your people to stop flushing the paper towel? Better look to the seat of the problem.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What makes a good trainer?

Technical training (for skills like engineering software, machine repair, electrical maintanence, troubleshooting, or any technical skills transfer) requires a different breed of trainer. Having worked for nearly 18 years as/with/around technical training and education I have had the pleasure to work with some of the best, as well as some of the worst.

What are the traits to look for when searching for the effective trainer for your technical products? It may be stuff that you can't find in their CV or resume unless you read between the lines.

The best trainers I met were almost maddeningly curious--about everything. My first mentor in technical training wanted to figure out how everything worked, broadly and deeply. That things worked was never enough, he had to get into it. He was curous about all thing, all people, all points of view. If we differed in view on anything he would want to know more. Not prove the other wrong.

Effective trainers like to make others shine. Inneffective trainers use the training platform as a way to demonstrate their smarts.  Really painful trainers teach by showing others what they know, & glow when their students stare slackjawed at them as they elucidate on the nuggets of their esoteric and private knowledge store.

We never hired anybody to be a trainer without forcing them to do multiple presentations to multiple people. Any trainer worth their while would never shy from this. Nor would they worry about now knowing what to present on, everybody has mastery of some skill worth presenting on. A good trainer can make a training class of anything.

What educational requirements should we look for? Most important is an educational background that demonstrates an ability to learn and apply knowledge. As an engineer I am biased toward the field of engineering as a good source for trainers. But I have worked with excellent trainers who came from the military, mechanical and electrical engineering, i have worked with some with PhD's and other with no degree at all. The ability to be effective at training was not evident on the resume (though experience in training on the resume is good to see) but most important was the drive to learn new things and share with others.

When I took a job with one company they took it on faith that I would be good at training. I was a little surprised that they never asked me to make a presentation and as luck has it I think I did well for that company. But to leave such an important thing to luck, or worse to take the word of the applicant as the only measure of training fit would be highly unwise.

It doesn't matter what the topic is that they present and teach for the interview. In fact if it is "off topic" even better. The good trainer should be able to take anything that they know and measurably transfer knowledge and skill. They should leave the participants in the presentation wanting more.

If this person is not expert at the topic you want taught already that is not a roadblock. They needn't be the "best" at (insert training goal here); They only need to be the best at learning and transfering what they learned.  Diverse resumes with broader curricula and experiences as opposed to "deep" knowledge in just one area. Diverse hobbies and tastes are also helpful, and a cultural and social flexibility as the trainer will undoubtedly need to deal with all sorts in the course of thei job.

As a parting word I will paraphrase one of my favorite instructors Gerald Pool of GM "in the valley of the blind, the one eyed man is king." You can teach a new hire to be that one eyed man, but the ability and drive to lead will be up to them. That is what you need to seek out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Don't blog where you eat.

The old idiom; don't s*** where you eat gets updated.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mechanical Turk Work: A little experiment

Registered recently to work as a mechanical turk for Amazon. Will post here progress and supply feedback. don't know what I am in for. Other than getting paid to wile away the hours on the internet.

So far the interface is a bit of a pain. The list of available HITs (human intelligence tasks) is not very friendly. Keeps resetting to the top of the list after viewing then rejecting tasks from later pages. Does not recall tasks that have already been performed (for which you are no longer eligible in some cases).

But to date I have earned $1.60.  Almost as much as my blog.....