More Better, or Solving Better Problems

Engineers solve problems. Isn’t that what engineering school is all about in the end? Some classes push knowledge. Most of the classes are about solving problems. Most of those involve math.

In this week’s (January 11, 2023) Akimbo podcast entitled More or Less, Seth Godin discusses the paradox of more or less. If we search more on Ecosia, we cause more trees to be planted that will offset the carbon dioxide we pump into the air when we drive to work. As engineers working in manufacturing and production, we are encouraged to help produce more. But also with less waste. We know that some waste, say methane leaks around the facility, also contribute to climate change.

As Seth “rants” on the subject, his logic points toward “better.” Maybe in my life I don’t need more of something or to make do with less of something else. Maybe I need to pursue better. And better is not always more expensive. I like a good wine. Sometimes I’ve had some excellent wines that were very expensive. We like a wine imported from Spain that I buy on sale from my local beverage store for $9.00. It is great with our dinner or for sipping.

Let us consider that concept of better.

Are we solving the better class of problems? Or, maybe just more of the easier problems that might gain us a little recognition? Or, fewer problems because we are “quiet quitting”?

I suggest that we work on the big problems. The problems that matter. The better problems.

And if you are not listening to Seth Godin each week, you are missing stimulation for your brain.

Flurry of Activity Going Nowhere

How to organize my time and improve productivity comprised a false trail to success for me since the time I was introduced to the topic and presented my very own set of DayTimers. I’ve gone the Getting Things Done with David Allen. This blog reflected some of my thinking for a period of time several years ago.

Some of what I learned I’ve used. Much has been discarded. But all was a learning experience. Recently I ran across Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman and subsequently subscribed to his newsletter, The Imperfectionist. A recent issue passed along this thought:

The Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama once wrote: “Life completely unhindered by anything manifests as pure activity.” Orient yourself to the world in this way, and the question is no longer “How can I get myself to do things?”, with its implicit and unwelcome answer: “By putting in more effort, you lazy jerk!” Instead, the question is something a bit more like “What’s seeking to be done through me, right now?” And then, whatever the response, all you really have to do is to allow it to happen.

Have you experienced bosses who prized activity over results? I have. Drove me crazy. 

Break up your day. Figure out the best times for different tasks. Find a way to devote about three hours to that “what is seeking to be done through me” task. Break. Block off a shorter period of time for discrete tasks—email, meetings, calls. Another shorter period for “urgent” to-dos. 

My Yoga training has conditioned me to “go with the flow.” Find that thing seeking to be done through me and go with the flow. Accomplish meaningful work.

Work Smart

What does it take to be better at work? Even for someone like me who works alone?

One of my few go-to news sources is called Axios. They use a technique called smart brevity. What I like. Short and to the point. I wrote to them about too many adjectives, but in reality they minimize those extraneous and emotion-laden words. (Did you notice what I just wrote?) I’ve always tried that here.

They have a daily newsletter called Finish Line that ponders personal issues. They ran a series where they asked readers from different generations to send their thoughts on work. I appreciated how similar the thoughts were. Founder Jim VandeHei summarized all the comments in a column called the 10 Commandments of Work Success.

Click the link to read them all. My picks from the litter include: 

  1. Serve others: If it’s only about you, you will do the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Life is empty alone. 
  2. Work morally: Honesty, grace, humility, hard work and honor are the core values of a work-life well-lived. 
  3. Work smart: Working hard on the wrong or nonessential things is time wasted. 
  4. Study deeply: Master the tiny details and panoramic context of your profession. 
  5. Study thyself: Be clear-eyed about your gifts and flaws. It’s the only path to betterment.
  6. Fortify thyself: Optimal work performance is impossible without healthy relationships, diet and exercise, and spirituality and mindfulness outside of it. 

The bottom line: When the clock stops,  smile confidently — knowing you did it right and well.

Steel Toes and Stilettos A Story of Manufacturing Transformation

The go-to book for manufacturing operations management for a generation has been The Goal by Jeff Cox and Eliyahu Goldratt. The book tells about transforming a failing plant using the Theory of Constraints and examples from life such as a Boy Scout hike.

Steel Toes and Stilettos: A True Story of Women Manufacturing Leaders and Lean Transformation Success by Shannon Karels and Kathy Miller captures my nomination for the manufacturing operations management story for the new generation. This first person account (told in sections by each of the authors) tells the story of how they assembled and led teams of three divisional automotive parts plants through a Lean transformation. The plants became clean, profitable, enthusiastic examples of how manufacturing can be done better.

Noticing, perhaps, that the authors are women, they use shoes as a metaphor for the journey and for the outline of the book. They also played with the metaphor of walking a mile in someone’s shoes. Part of the book discusses some of the work and planning involved from convincing people to try new ideas into having those same people (mostly) become creative participants in turning the plants around. Like all good stories, there are several levels. Another part of the story is how they managed to blend home life with the time consuming travel and meetings a turnaround requires. Still another part touches on some unique challenges women face in an overwhelmingly male culture.

Oh, and I think many grapes were killed in the making of this story. You’ll have to read the book to catch the meaning.

Note: I link to rather than to Amazon. This website supports your local independent bookstore. Just as I’m a fan of local coffee houses that provide direct trade coffee, I also support local bookstores.

Poor Product Documentation Costs Enterprises

I was hired early in my career to solve the problem of providing product information to all the departments that needed it in the form and quantity they needed for doing their jobs. Fifty years later, looks like it’s still a problem looking for better solutions. I’ve written recently about companies solving the complexity issue. This company tackles product information from a visual perspective using the customer’s 3D CAD models.

Canvas GFX, Inc, a provider of visual communication and collaboration solutions to the manufacturing and technical industries, published new research showing the damaging commercial impact of inefficient and ineffective product documentation workflows and processes at manufacturing companies.

Here are some quick read bullet points:

• 73% of manufacturing industry professionals surveyed said inefficiency in current documentation workflows risks undermining gains made through other process and technology initiatives

• 97% of respondents said products or projects had been hit by errors or delays as a result of documentation being late, inaccurate or unclear

• 41% said outdated documentation had led to delayed or missed sales opportunities

Based on a survey of over 500 manufacturing industry professionals, the research shows how documentation that is routinely late, inaccurate, and outdated is causing downstream damage to the organization.

Note: I think I would have been fired for that.

My daughter who is a psychologist would love this (not). The report describes a new disorder—Product Communication Disorder. OK, that may be a little over the top.

Almost three-quarters of respondents (73%) felt that inefficiencies in their product communication processes could be undermining gains made through other technology initiatives.

“What this research shows is that challenges which might only be understood as departmental workflow issues are actually intricately connected to the success of the entire organization,” said Patricia Hume, CEO of Canvas GFX. “How product communication content – from engineering through to sales –  is created, collaborated on, and consumed underpins company performance. Where these processes are malfunctioning, the result is self-inflicted damage. Product Communication Disorder is a systemic problem which must be viewed and addressed as such.”

Click for the full report and methodology.

Fifteen Years of iPhone

Remember 10-12 years ago when some worriers considered all the bad things that could happen if workers took their iPhones and other smart mobile devices into the plant? I wrote articles at Automation World about all this mobile connectivity. Companies figured out how to connect them to the HMI of machines and processes. Engineers complained to me at conferences that I was responsible for their loss of free time even on vacation because bosses expected them to be always on.

But the benefits have been tremendous. Maybe managers had to learn how to allow people to be off the grid at times, but there would have been no way to negotiate these Covid times without them. My first smart device was a Palm Pilot. I lusted for a Newton, but I just couldn’t rationalize it. With the Palm, I synced my ACT CRM, loaded documents, and took notes. When I was calling on a large engine manufacturing plant or other large facilities, I didn’t have to take a big notebook, briefcase, and lots of paper. That was mid-90s.

One of my favorite tech writers, Om Malik, blogged a retrospective of his writing on the iPhone. He wrote for Wired and Red Herring and then started the Web-based news site GigaOm. Now he blogs on his own.

I brought the Palm (later generations) with me when beginning my editorial career at Control Engineering in 1998. Once again, I could call on a company and only take that along.

Gary’s Device Collection 1995-Present

The photo shows a couple of my Palm devices then several, but not all, of my early phones. Then a couple of iPods, which were way cool. A couple of early HTC Android phones, and then five of my iPhones including my model 12 at the bottom right.

These devices have been essential to my improved productivity and effectiveness. They’ve also been a time-waster, but you can’t have everything.

Thank you to Steve Jobs and Apple for the development and evolution of the iPhone.

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