The Unwritten Laws of Engineering

A couple months ago, Mark commented on the unraveling of the mystery of Raytheon’s Swanson’s The Unwritten Rules of Management. This book got incredible press on how many people liked it, including Warren Buffett. As I liked to do, the only thing left was to read the original text, which is The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by King. I finally got my copy and while I haven’t read it cover to cover yet (it’s only 58 pages), I found one entry to be particularly enlightening. Better yet, he referenced the entry (properly) from another book, Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. Here is the entry:

Develop a “Let’s go see!” attitude
Throughout your career people will approach you with all manner of real-life problems they will have observed on devices or equipment for which you have responsibility. A wonderfully effective response, both technically and administratively, is to invite them to have a look with you – i.e. “Let’s go see!” It is seldom adequate to reamin at one’s desk and speculate about causes and solutions, or to retreat to drawings, specifications, and reports and hope to sort it all out. Before ever being able to solve a problem, you will need abundant insight, insight that can only be developed by observing first-hand what might be at once too subtle and complex only to imagine. (Page 8).

This all sounds quite a bit like go to the gemba. I write about it under the heading “directly observing work” in Chapter 1 in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. It means we have to use that wonderfully sophisticated tool called our EYES and see stuff where it’s happening. What to understand your process? Go see. Want to understand your people? Go see. Want to understand how your product is actually used? Go see.

Here’s a “go see” lesson on engineering from my past. When I was an engineer on the minivan program, there was a problem with the rear wipers breaking. No one knew why because they met all known standards. So the only solution was “go see.” Once seeing customers using the product in action, it was found that the kids (which minivans were obviously designed to carry) would use the rear wiper as a handle to pull themselves up on the rear fender. Now you could ask “why does a kid need to stand on the rear fender?” but if you have kids you realize that’s a dumb question. The only answer, beef up the design.

I doubt Ferguson or King now deserve credit for inventing the Toyota Production System, but it is nice to see that great advice transcends venues from lean to engineering and beyond.


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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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