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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.