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The Dumbest Guy in the Room.

JAG Engineering LLC

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Over the years I have witnessed a particular mistake repeated. It is usually with an old product that has a problem, or the old product requiring a change or a feature added. The mistake manifests itself with everyone believing they carry the true operation and understanding in their heads. Aside from Scotty aboard the USS Enterprise, most should assume there is something they may not know.

When a new product is being developed the team usually follows some development process with defined tools. Oversight is likely in place with design reviews and gatekeepers of some kind. But humans grow complacent and subconsciously assume these systems must be as they believe it to be. After all we have been making it or using it for years.

If you get involved with Value Stream Mapping you will come to realize everyone has their own reality of how things work. This could almost be a money making parlor tick. Do a demonstration of some process with 15-20 steps to an audience of 20 people. If two in the audience come up with the same detailed step by step process after watching the demonstration, I would be surprised. Usually 2 or 3 people are asked and I have never witnessed two agreeing or any of them being correct on the first pass. The tasking of writing it down will indentify to others what was missed. With repeated passes a complete process can be documented.

Having been a manager of experts in a variety of specialties I have often been the dumbest guy in the room. I know what I don’t know and I am less likely to develop a mental understanding good enough to convince myself I understand.

One example in particular comes to mind. I sat in a meeting to develop a system consisting of electronic devices. This was an add-on or a fix – not new product development where checks and balances are in place. I can’t recall the specifics but the experts were discussing this with great confidence. I was lost and asked that the oral conversation to be turned into a block diagram on the white board.

Just as with Value Stream Mapping the first attempt at the block diagram received corrections from people who a few minutes ago were in oral agreement. I believe it took seven iterations of the block diagram before all the experts agreed.

This is not an attempt to discredit experts. Without them the job would not get done. This illustrates that experts, except Scotty of course, can easily get over confident. When a team is involved it is seldom the case that everyone knows everything. Add the element of time for aged products/systems and it is almost a certainty.

If you are part of a meeting where everyone is in oral agreement it would be prudent to ask for a flow chart or block diagram. The dumbest guy in the room may save the day.



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Only a very foolish expert would claim to know everything about any product or system. Experts are, by definition, expert in some narrow area only; only if they are really ignorant do they think that they understand the whole system.

Speaking for myself, as an expert, I can honestly say, I don't want to know everything about any system; that is way too much for me to handle. (Actually, when the discussion leaves my area of expertise, I get bored very quickly!) I can only be an expert in some part of the system, and leave it up to the project engineer or the program manager to fit all the pieces together.

DrD

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Perhaps my use of the term expert diverts from the phenomena. Or perhaps the true expert is the Dumbest Guy in the Room. Here is some additional detail.

It is not a matter of people thinking boastfully “I know it all - I am the expert.” It is a failure to dismiss the subconscious false comfort that comes from having used or integrated an existing product or system for an extended period. One story told to me by a Sr. stress analyst touches on the subject. I don’t know how factual the specifics are but the phenomenon fits.

A large corporation designed and manufactured a four prop military aircraft. The plane had been in service for decades and was derived from a civilian model designed and manufactured by the same corporation. It was a good design as decades in service would testify. But all good things must come to an end and the government requested a replacement. According to the analyst the corporation was sure their new design would win. After all they have been making the original aircraft for a long time. They did not win. Designing something and manufacturing something are very different. Few would argue when stated so bluntly but often the bluntness is not provided.

The original designers were long retired or dead. The “what” was documented on the drawings. But often the “why” is lost. The company was proficient at making the parts as documented. But the thousands of minor decisions that result in a final design are often lost in time. We take for granted the complicated devices we use every day. The details that went into the original design of a kitchen can opener, let alone an iPhone, would shock most people.

Another example of the blurring of capabilities I have experienced many times among CAD users. It is similar if not the same phenomena. First a little drafting room history is required; some of which even predates me.

Decades ago one of the entry level drafting positions was called Tracer. As the title implies, if parts were to be reused in a new assembly they would be traced onto a new velum. Here too a Jr. Drafter would have to think ahead and avoid running out of room. Even at this entry level there was an awareness of the skills needed to avoid a time consuming mistake. Yet the tracer was the Jr. guy in the room. With the advent of CAD, drawings can be reused and views repositioned with a much lower level of skill. Think typewriter with a professional typist before the advent of MS Word on everyone’s desk. How many of us can type that fast with so few errors – all day – everyday – for years?

Now back to my point. A good portion of the drafting effort then and now are minor changes to drawings. Modifications are much easier with CAD than during the days of velum and this is a source for false confidence. I have interviewed people who really believe they have been designing in CAD for decades when in reality they have been revising and reusing existing designs. After a few post hiring surprises we implemented a simple test during the interview. It was a real eye opener to witness “veteran” users having no clue how to start from a blank screen or set up dimension styles. We allowed plenty of time for unfamiliar workstations and for those who used Command Line/Shortcut Keys vs. Window commands. This was not just a case of resume padding – they really believed they met the skill requirements. They were told in advance there would be a CAD test. They had no doubt they had been doing design work for years and never stopped to think if there was something they should look into before the interview.

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Very Interesting article JAG.

Engineers can generally be ambitious people and ambition can be measured in many different ways. How you compare yourself with the other people in the room is one way but no matter the answer you come up with, the ambition should always be "Never be the smartest person in the room".

I have never been interested in doing anything where I wont learn anything new, and it has been very stressful sometimes when you don't know enough. The important thing to have is the ability to communicate, as with your block diagram example above, and to know your limitations (much harder) as with the CAD example above.

 

Thank you again JAG

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