Thursday, May 31, 2007

How to think for yourself

Actually, I believe that we're all capable of having the same level of thought. Everyone already knows how to think - they just don't want to. I don't think that there are stupid people and smart people because I'm, supposedly, a smart person and I'm as dumb as a box of hammers (but I'm such a handsome guy :D).

I think the real key here is WHY to think for youself.

As an engineer you have a fairly unique function. You're a knowledge worker who works with labor-workers. You're royalty, but you're also just a bullshit-engineer. People turn to you for answers and explanations, but they also deride every mistake you ever made as just another engineer's screwup.

How many conversations have you had with technical people (mechanics, salespeople, toolmakers, your dad) who are convinced that every problem in the western world is due to some engineer screwup? "This widget hasn't been designed to be disassembled - look! The nut can't be reached, if the designer had put it HERE I'd be finished by now. But no-ooo, it has to be all the way over HeEeRE where I can't get to it."

People demand thinking, but they want it done their way.

Usually when people disagree with me it's because they've already made up their minds. It's because they've had a cursory glance at the facts and reached into their grab-bag of past experience and pulled out the most obvious looking answer. Then they stare at me as if cheese has started coming out of my ears when I don't immediately believe what they're telling me. I can ACCEPT what they're saying, but it doesn't become FACT for me until I've understood it.

An old example comes to my mind - I don't know if it's a particularly good example, but I'll give it a try. Shortly after I started my first big project wsa to finish the redevelopment of the stainless steel spring that holds the castor pedal in and stops the wheel from turning. There are a pair of little teeth that lock up into the race to stop it from swivelling.

In my infinite wisdom I had determined that these teeth needed to be 3.6 wide with a 3.6 gap, and be a total of 10.8 wide. The toolmaker insisted that this was impossible. It's not a question of tolerance stacking, because the cropping process is very precise - less than 0.05. I could have lived with a pair of 3.55 teeth and an overall width of 10.8. That would have been fine.


The toolmaker insisted that this was impossible because you always have to put the clearance on the die side.

There's 0.1 clearance on the die, so you have to pick one dimension to be out of tolerance. And that's as far as he was willing to think about it. Now, this particular toolmaker is a smart guy - and he'd been in his profession for a lot longer than I had been. But he was wrong, and I had trouble explaining this to him.

He ended up getting very angry with me - that his experience wasn't enough for me to believe his wisdom. There was more to it than that.

The geometry that I wanted was a pair of protruding teeth. It's fair enough that the die has to have a 3.8 gap for the 3.6 punch to make a 3.6 tooth. But then the gap between the teeth has to then be 3.4. But 3.8 + 3.8 + 3.4 = 11.0. That's too big. Ah! You're forgetting about the 0.1 clearance on each side! 11.0 - 0.1 - 0.1 = 10.8.


The reason is that the gap between the teeth is really in reverse. It's going into the punch. So for that little section the die is really the punch and the punch is really the die. The breakaway goes in the other direction just in there.

Ok, so it's a bad explanation. But _I_ know what I mean.

The reason I drag all this up from way back when is not to gloat over my glory at winning a technical argument. In actual fact I didn't win that argument, I had to get my boss to come down and over-rule him. The reason I bring it up is that this was, for me, one of the first times that I'd had to stand on my own two feet and use my brain - to put my trust in my own thinking, even in the face of direct disagreement.

There is no requirement for an engineer to examine a problem and pronounce "I dunno. What's the standard answer to this problem." Because we don't get presented with standard problems. If they were standard problems it would be dealt with my someone higher up the food chain than us. The engineer's function is to be a truth-sayer, to only ever utter things that come from an internal understanding of the facts. If facts are outstanding then do not proclaim to have the understanding. Make decisions, certainly, but call them guesses.

This is not common sense. Common sense is advisable, and can be learnt, but once you get too much of it you're no good as an engineer any more and you need to become a manager. The trick is to trust your uncommon sense - to stand in a circle of people who all agree on an explanation and be that one irritating fool who still stands there feeling doubtful.

My wife doesn't take me shopping anymore. True, with the two kids under 4 we don't get much browsing done - but that's not the reason. When she asks me if something looks good on her I say "I don't know. I can't see the tag." It's not that I'm tight (I am) it's that I can't hope to tell her my understanding of something while there's outstanding data. An expensive shirt had BETTER look good. A cheap shirt doesn't have to. Somewhere in the middle there's a reasonable looking shirt for a reasonable price.

Have I answered your question? WHY think for yourself?

Not yet.

I've addressed what it means to think for yourself, what the definition of it is.

I think that truth is what makes us human. Truth and understanding. Reality is. We exist because he perceive reality. That's what sets us apart from pure mineral nothingness. We are here to witness what happens to the mineral world.

When you admit deliberate error into your world you become less perfectly human. You forsake your very reason for being. Truth, and your understanding of what any particulary truth is, is unavoidable. How you react to that truth, and how you seek it, is entirely up to you.

If you choose to live a life of disconnect you're going to be a very poor engineer. You should think for yourself because no-one else is going to do it for you - and if they do you will be out of a job. Your ability to conjure up thinkingness from the depths of your cerebellum and apply it to facts that are available for all to see is what sets you apart.

When the factory staff hold up a bodgy product and demand that you accept that it's bodgy because of Process X, stop. Is is X or Y? It doesn't matter what it was last time. What is it THIS time?

When a colleague tells you that something is impossible, stop. Is it logically impossible to do this thing, or is it that merely that you don't know how?

I'll leave you with an Isaac Asimov quotation: "When an old scientist tells you that something is possible he is almost certianly correct. When he tells you that something is impossible he is almost certainly wrong."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

GTD for Mechanical Engineers

Ok folks.

It's here.

A blog dedicated to providing time management and GTD insight for the MECHANICAL engineer. You've already trawled through screens and screens of GTD advice for software developers, managers, travelling salesmen, motivational speakers, guitarists or primary-care-givers, and tried to make heads/tails of it all, and gotten... somewhere. This blog is for people who feel naked without a 6" rule somewhere on their person, and who don't know how to give their opinion on something that is awkward to measure with a vernier. If you believe that the first rule of engineering is "If it can't be fixed with a hammer, it can't be fixed" then you've come to the right place.

I'm going to use this space to explore what GTD means for an engineer. For those of us who have metal to cut, products to validate and drawings to issue. Our field is a modern enterprise, we use the latest technology and tools that would delight the Jetsons - but why does it always seem like we're living in the Dark Ages? Isn't this the Age of the Computer? Why can no-one get anything right? Why is it so hard to GET THINGS DONE?


Anyway, why would you want to read this blog? Who am I? How successful am I? Why trust me? What do I do?
  • Well: I'm nobody. My name is Brent, I live in Melbourne Australia. I'm a father of two and I recently took up the sport of bike riding for fun and fitness. I play guitar (when I can). I'm 28 years old and I've been married for 8 years. Does that help?
  • Not very successful at all really. I was told all through high school that I had Potential, but I found out that it's more work to make manifest your potential than it is to merely possess it in the first place. I've been working in the same job since I graduated 4 years ago and they haven't fired me yet, so I figure I'm on a good thing. I am far from the most experienced engineer on the planet, and I'm very happy to accept [and profit from] the wisdom of others.
  • You can trust me because I'm honest. I probably don't think like a lot of people you've read before. I probably don't have all the answers. What I do have is an ability to tell the truth when I see it, and to only write the things that I know to be true.
  • My job title is Product Design Engineer. I have a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering, and I work for a local manufacturer of wheels and castors. We basically make shopping trolley castors, but good ones. You would be AMAZED at the things that need technical expertise in designing and maintaining castors. We have a fairly well appointed toolroom, with two CNC machining centres, a wirecutter, EDM, CNC lathe and the rest. I work with SolidWorks for all the CAD work, for product design and development as well as a bit of tooling. I guess that my real title ought to be Project Engineer, because I take a project from the time it's just a gleam in the MD's eye, through concept development and scoping, CAPEX, CAD, development, testing, validation, tooling and into production. I'm not just a CAD jockey.
Does that help yet?

I thought not.

Is it supposed to hurt?
I came across GTD about two and a half years ago because I had the world's geekiest boss. He found this time management thing call GTD and insisted that all his team read it and [hopefully] learn from it. I took to it like a duck to gravy. I read up as best as I could, and honestly I tried. But I was a time managment mess to start with. I suppose it at least lifted me up to the status of doofus - which is a start.

I read every blog and article on GTD I could get my hands on. I bought a Palm and used Memos and DateBook5. I made up paper lists. I looked at TiddlyWiki. I tried FreeMind. I tried forgetting about the whole thing and letting it blow over. I read the book three times in a row, but I just couldn't get my head around how it related to ME.

@today? @work? @next-actions?

What were my contexts? How could I link my actions to my contexts? @tomorrow? @urgent?

It simply didn't click for me. I guess it made sense, but it didn't click. I kept trying to fiddle with the system - trying to get something that could:
  • cross-reference projects, contexts and their actions
  • be easily extended or reduced as new projects came and went
  • be effortlessly synced to my Palm
It seems so obvious to me now - I wasn't searching for the right PACKAGE, I was searching for the right SYSTEM.

I had too many buckets. I confused contexts with actions: I couldn't work out what needed to be sorted, and how.

My Blinding Flash of the Obvious is the content of this first post: what buckets do you choose to make sure you catch all your Stuff?

Friends, I'll give you the straight answer here. You'll read guff and stuff out there in the Wide Wide World of Web about what you need, and it will be very confusing. It will be written by highly caffeinated geeks who think that spitting out concepts is the same as spitting out information. These are the five buckets you need:

  • goals
  • projects
  • next-actions
  • someday/maybe
  • waiting for
That's it. That's the entire kaboodle, kit included.

What do you want to do with your life? What do you want to do THIS YEAR with your life? What do you need to get done to meet your commitments? Why get out of bed in the morning? What will be the proof that you've been worth your salary? It's not enough to be working on projects - you have to know WHY you're working on those projects and not something else. This can be short: 5 items. Any more and you'll be unable to commit to the right project that will satisfy your goals.

Ok. So what are you working on? What are your open loops? We don't need to know what Projects you're assigned to; that's what your KPIs are for. Just write down the projects. You're a natural born planner - you know what's involved in your Project; you need to do your CAPEX, you need to get the concept design done, you need to find a supplier for those components, you need to you need to you need to you need to. What ducks do you need to get in a row? What blind alleys do you need to go shooting down? What processes do you need to follow? What conversations do you need to have?

Ok, this ought to be obvious. Go through your projects and write down the very next-action that needs doing on each project. If there are two seperate actions that could be taken, don't choose between them just write them down. But don't write down the second and third steps - that stuff is doomed to live in your project planning. Face it, the future doesn't happen according to your plan. All you can do is manage yourself, now.

I have to be honest and say that I don't think this list is particularly useful for me. As I said above, I'm uncomfortable trying to second-guess future realities by populating the Someday list with Step 3 through Step 43 that I'll be able to start as soon as I've done A and B. It doesn't work like that. And I've got far too much work on my plate for such a thing as Maybe. I either decide to do something or decide not to do something - there's never going to come a quiet lull in the activity where it becomes appropriate to discuss getting a new CAM software that integrates directly with SolidWorks. I either need to do it at an inappropriate time or toss the idea. I'm comfortable with both approaches.

But I keep the list because without it there would be a functional hole for actions and projects that are worth taking but can be cheaply deferred for the present.

waiting for
This is perhaps the keystone for me. I was amazed the other week when I went through my waiting for list and shot a followup email to the interstate sales manager asking where my competitor sample castors had gone. He'd sent out the request to all the branch managers then forgotten about it altogether. So had they! Weeks had gone past where I thought they were all diligently beavering away for me using their contacts to generate samples I needed to validate the design for the castor THEY'RE hassling ME to hurry up and design. They'd forgotten about it!

The thing that really got to me wasn't that the branch managers had forgotten the commitment. These things happen. That's what communication is for. That's why engineers spend 3/4 of their waking life chasing things up. What got to me was that the National Sales Manager had no record or reminder or popup or note of the deliverable that his staff had promised. He hadn't added this to his waiting for list. He had no live document of what future events had to take place before his promise to me was fulfilled.

The most profitable thing I've ever done for my company is to develop the skill of never losing a thread. Where's the quote on that widget? Coming next week. What's the latest scope? I'm waiting for the Production Manager to submit his comments. What's the state of the tooling? Tooling design is sitting with the toolmaker.

I prefer those answers to: which widget? I was supposed to get quotes for that too? Scope? Did you not want me to show that to the Managing Director yet? Tooling? I dunno. I guess they're working as fast as they can.

Competitor samples that you need to benchmark the design? I dunno what happened to that.

Where are the contexts, you ask? Where are all my @ signs? I will tell you now. I invite you to reach deep within your soul and examine your life. Think of all the spheres that you influence - learn how far your grasp is.

Close your eyes, let your mind go blank, then let it focus on the details of your inner-child, then let it go blank, then focus again on your inner child then let it go blank.

When you open your eyes you will realise that you have two contexts: you're either at home or at work. There is no need to be maintaining such foolishness as @MyMum'sPlace or @VideoStore. Go and wash your brain out!

Keep It Simple Stupid.

[I know, I know. You're a volunteer at your church. You coach basketball for under 9's. You own and operate a ski-lodge on the side and spend every waking moment managing it by webcam and loudspeaker. Right. You can have another context. Personally, I've also got @shops.]

If you're like me you work with a PC on at all times, you have a phone on your desk and a mobile in your pocket. There's a fax/photocopier a few feet away and your PC is constantly connected to some variety of broadband intermanet. There's an intranet, for what it's worth, and the entire company network is available to you.

There's no POINT to having contexts called @computer, @phone, @fax, @email. Those things are always available to you. An action called "call Scumbags R Us to follow up on rivet delays" isn't WAITING for the moment when the phone is available to you. The phone is right there. Any time that you're at work you could pick up that phone and call.

You could also be writing that email. You could be reading [this] blog. You could be sending a fax to a supplier or working on your CAD. All things are possible.

The point is that you must not let your contexts overlap. That's wastage. David Allen can be forgiven for having the contexts @computer and @internet, because he frequently travels and spends time at his laptop unconnected from the outside world. The rule is that a context is defined by the tools that are available at that moment in time.

If you're sitting at your desk at 9am wondering what context you are in - I'll tell you. You are in @computer, @internet, @CAD, @fax, @phone, @boss, @email... all at the same time.

Now. I'm not telling you what MODE you're in. Maybe you enjoy emailing first thing. Maybe you love Dilbert. But your CONTEXT is firmly @work. You have all your @work tools available.

So. That's it for the first post to the Mechanical Engineer's GTD blog.

Future topics will include:
- using GTD to drive development
- ways to encourage others to keep their word
- using Gate Reviews to make realistic project planning possible
- how to manage risk in the decisions you make