Comment: Dealing with the design dabblers

secret engineerDesign by committee can be a frustrating process, but taking the time to educate non-specialist colleagues about the engineering mindset can help ease the pain, writes our anonymous blogger. 

Things seem to be going pretty well at the latest place of employment but, as with anywhere, there are unique challenges to be dealt with. Without wishing to give too much away there is a slightly odd relationship with the different departments here, nothing to cause friction generally but one where it all feels a little “odd.” This is probably best illustrated by a recent exchange regarding a part that I’ve designed. The drawing was sent off for quote for manufacture and when the price came back it was a tad expensive. I was rung by the person dealing with the procurement and in a very matter of fact way informed of this then asked if I could “make it from another material?” Not as a general query but literally “X is expensive, can it be made from Y?”

design dabblers
Image: ra2studio via stock.adobe.com

Having been pounced upon when using levity in the past with regard to such situations let me state that I, of course, have no problem with questions being asked. Better still though would be to simply feed the quote back to me. If nothing else, in this case I had created the design at the request of another department so in fact it was this third party’s budget and they had to make the decision on whether to proceed or not. However the problem lies deeper with either a recognised or unwitting assumption regarding process and expertise. As an engineer I had weighed up the design specification, the particular requirements of the component and the cost then selected the material accordingly. Not only was this far removed from being an arbitrary decision by myself but the alternative suggestion completely compromised a key part of the design brief.

I would never dream of saying to the chef in the canteen “Cream’s rather expensive, can’t you use water as a filling in the doughnut instead?”

The problem, I think, stems from a perception that engineering isn’t that difficult and others outside of our own profession can dabble without causing problems. Funnily enough it was something I noticed regarding a senior person at my last place of permanent employ. Whereas it was incredibly frustrating then, in this latest case I was merely incredulously amused. There is of course every opportunity for this to go in the opposite direction but personally I would never dream of, for instance, saying to the chef in the canteen “Cream’s rather expensive, can’t you use water as a filling in the doughnut instead?” I have an appreciation and respect for the fact that they do something I cannot, or certainly something I cannot do anywhere near as well as they can.

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So what lies behind this and / or how can it be avoided in the future? Certainly anyone can have a bright idea, either generally or about a particular problem that needs to be resolved but unless they are equipped to understand the challenges with implementing that idea in a viable way, its not likely to get very far.

I do think this is something we can actively help to tackle though. In this case I pointed out that the material choice was key and that savings could be found through less drastic measures. True other parts of the design brief would have to be compromised but these were criteria that come under the “would like to have” banner, and which could be shed as part of the normal path of development and refinement. Hopefully taking the time to explain such matters will start a process where the eyes of others are opened to the fact that there are usually a number of potential solutions to any problem, not just the most obvious, and equally probably any number of factors at play they are unaware of. Perhaps trying to encourage more cross functional meetings throughout the project so they have greater visibility overall could be a good long term plan? Arming them with a deeper understanding throughout could, I think, work very well in improving the situation. Working closer to enable efficient decision making rather than building walls to keep others out.

However that would mean breaking another notable aspect of the company culture: randomly not turning up to meetings. The work of the Secret Engineer in righting wrongs, it would appear, is never done…