Focus on the detail

One of the greatest challenges I will face in life will be paying attention to the right thing at the right time.

Perhaps the reason this is such a challenge is that as the problems I tackle become more complex, it becomes even more difficult to know what I should be looking at, and precisely how much time should I devote to looking at it.

Today, prompted by the sight of a magnifying glass lying on an engineer's desk, I got to thinking about how information overload impacts our ability to focus on the detail. I wondered to myself, 'is the magnifying glass because he has problems with his eyesight? Or could it be that he needs it to read some fine print on A3 drawings printed on A4 paper?' Either way, my thoughts led me to think about Sherlock Holmes and his ability to deduce great things from minute observations, and I wondered, how often do engineers of today truly pay close enough attention to the detail of what they produce?

As a project manager working on design projects, I'm am frustrated to find that, despite employing a competent engineer to design and an even more competent engineer to review said engineer's design, details can still be unclear, wrong or missing when they reach me for release. Is it the square eye syndrome that one gets when constantly reviewing one's own work, or is it competing commitments, or is it time constraints? Whatever the reason, we need to tackle it.

So I propose this simple set of rules for an engineer to enable them to better check their work.

  1. Be systematic - break your design down in to pieces/systems and check them individually. e.g. If you are designing a pipe network, review every pipeline one by one, every valve, and fitting, and confirm that what is on the drawing, matches what you expect.
  2. Be ignorant - imagine you know nothing about your design, pick it up and start questioning it. e.g. 'what's the bigger picture?', 'what's this detail mean?', 'where does this detail belong?', 'how did I get here, and how do I get back to where I was?', 'why is that detail so big/small?', 'why did the engineer put this here/there?' If you don't have a good reason, or can't answer your own questions, its time to reconsider what you've been doing.
  3. Be an expert - give your design to someone else and explain it to them. If they have questions, answer them and take note of the question and the answer, consider whether these questions could be better answered in your design.
  4. Be diligent - assumptions can be replaced with actual information, ask questions as you prepare your design, and document gaps and your assumptions clearly so that anyone can understand.
  5. Be proud - taking pride in what you do can impact your approach and the final outcome. Taking pride in the outcome, no matter how big or small will lead to greater accountability and desire to produce something of higher quality. There's probably a lot of other things one could do, and I often go back to my English teacher's advice at school for checking reports, 'read it forward, then read it backwards'. Sage advice which allows us to focus on the bigger picture (reading it forward), and focus on the details (reading it backward).

What do you think?
As always I'm keen to hear your thoughts, if you have any additional advice for engineers and designers, please feel free to share them in the comments below and I hope you enjoyed this piece.

Alex Ferguson

Ignite Your Thinking

What Do You Think?

Alex Ferguson · 11/05/2016 7:01:36 PM
Thanks Nick and Blair for your comments. Positive reinforcement is super important, and no one is perfect, so it is great when that feedback is constructive and designed to help people improve themselves. Even despite my own advice, I often find out I've made mistakes, and most of the time when someone else kindly points them out. You know you are in a great team when feedback is framed in a way that builds you up.

Colin Pearson · 11/05/2016 8:44:13 AM
It could be reworded many ways. However we as designers, consultants, engineers always need to consider who the audience is. What would someone else want to see and are they educated enough in the subject to understand the intent of the design being delivered?
To deliver value to our client we need to deliver the design at a user appropriate level.

Blair Logan · 18/03/2016 12:44:53 PM
Hi Alex, I enjoyed reading your article and your suggestion to be ignorant and expert is so true.. yet often so hard to do..! Good guidance that I will reflect on over the weekend.
Thanks - Blair

Nick · 17/03/2016 8:50:31 AM
When you have done this checking and giving feedback do it in a positive manner. The designer and checker are probably proud of their work and feel bad that you find errors. Remind them the you are the last member of the quality team to have a chance to help them with their product before it goes to the paying client or the builder who doesn't have time to review for errors. Yes, the errors have to be fixed but don't forget to complement the good work that is presented (sometimes it is even brilliant work).

Personally I like to send the occasional thank you notes to the design teams for their support (as I did yesterday). I appreciate that the designers have to envision and understand our installations from thousands of kms away and all to often without having ever been here.

Alex Ferguson · 16/03/2016 6:06:45 PM
Nice Colin! Thanks for the suggestion, although maybe we shouldn't limit it to a Client's perspective? Perhaps #6 is to; "Be someone else - See your design through the eyes of someone else (including your client)".

Colin Pearson · 16/03/2016 3:46:23 PM
Excellent article. Can I suggest #6? Look at your design from your client's eyes. And the eyes of your client's client. That is do your documents make sense and give the person paying you what they want? And do your documents give the next person in the chain, often a site contractor, what they need?