Ten Rules of Thumb from “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School”

Ten rules of thumb from”101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick that I think entrepreneurs will find particularly useful. It’s a great book full of very clear illustrations and examples for most of its 101 two-page chapters. I purchased it as a Christmas gift for my sons and could not stop reading it once I started. I have preserved the numbering from the chapters in the book.

Ten Rules of Thumb For Entrepreneurs
from “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School”

101 Things I Learned in Engineering School1. Engineering succeeds and fails because of the black box

A black box is a conceptual container for the knowledge, processes, and working assumptions of an engineering specialty. On multidisciplinary design teams, the output of one discipline’s black box serves as the input for the black boxes of one or more other disciplines. The designer of a fuel system, for example, works within a “fuel system black box” that produces an output for the engine designer; the engine designer’s black box outputs to the automatic transmission designer, and so on.

Design solutions don’t emerge linearly, however, and design teams work in interconnected webs of relationships. Hence, the black box model works best when employed as a momentary ideal that is adjusted and redefined throughout the design process as constraints become evident, opportunities emerge, prototypes are tested, and goals are clarified. It fails when expected to be permanent and orderly.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

Black box thinking allows for a team to divide up a problem and work on different aspects of it, perhaps leveraging unique skills and expertise for different domains. On the other hand the real world is often very messy. Here is Russell Ackoff in 1979 on the limits of a divide and conquer approach:

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and chairs. We experience messes, tables, and chairs; not problems and atoms.

Because messes are systems of problems, the sum of the optimal solutions to each component problem taken separately is not an optimal solution to the mess. The behaviour of a mess depends more on how the solutions to its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other. Messes require holistic treatment.”

Russell L. Ackoff  in The Future of Operational Research is Past
Source: The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Feb., 1979), pp. 93-104

The real value of black thinking is to draw out the relationships between the boxes so that interfaces and interactions can be clarified and effects and problems that are local can be addressed while bearing the global interactions inherent in the system.

3. The heart of engineering isn’t calculation; it’s problem solving.

School may teach the numbers first, but calculation is neither the front end of engineering nor its end goal. Calculation is one means among many to an end—to a solution that provides useful, objectively measurable improvement.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

One trap for entrepreneurs  can be to focus on what’s easy to measure and deal with the math and not people, to capture numbers and neglect stories.

5. Every problem is unique.

Engineering problems rely on the familiar, but invention is also called for. Some problem-solving tools are developed through rote and repetition; some emerge intuitively; some rote-learned tools become intuitive over time; and some come out of necessity and even desperation. Add the tools you develop from solving each problem to your toolbox to use on future problems. More importantly, add to your toolbox the methods by which you discovered the new tools.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

Most engineering problems–and most entrepreneurial challenges–involving doing something whose full particulars have not been accomplished before. Realize that anything that is new can present unique challenges and patient with yourself. Also understand if you spot a problem lurking in one part of the design similar ones may lurk in other aspects and check for them. I can remember at Cisco we had a problem where the growth of the code base meant that the system image could not fit into memory. We scratched our heads and came up with a compression algorithm that allowed it to fit. Believing we had solved the problem we celebrated and moved on. What we did not do was to keep track of the continued growth of the image and sure enough nine months later new releases could not fit even when compressed.

6. Focus on the Essential Constraint
“Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out.”
Tony Hoare
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

Sometimes you can change one constraint in a way that shifts the equilibrium or sum of forces in a situation to a much better outcome.

17. A battery works because of corrosion
When two different metals are placed in contact, the atoms of each compete to attract electrons. The more “noble” metal (cathode) attracts electrons from the more “active” metal (anode). This movement of electrons causes the anode to corrode and produces an electric current.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

Successful businesses take advantage of the perishable and impermanent to create value. Few products are perfect and even good products that are profitable attract competitors that obsolete them over time.

23. Accuracy and precision are different things
Accuracy is the absence of error;  precision is the level of detail. Effective problem solving always requires accuracy but tolerates imprecise methods to allow consideration of a broad range of options.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

Order of magnitude calculations can be very helpful. Also understanding your business model and how key parameters interact. Attempts at premature optimization or detailed tinkering with tactics before you have explored a range of strategies often mean that competitors can outflank you with a less refined but better positioned approach. I see this in particular with a focus on web analytics or detailed measurement of customer behavior in preference to conversations with customers that can surprise you with new insights.

24 There’s always a trade-off.
Weight vs. strength, speed of measurement vs. accuracy of measurement, design time vs. design quality, quality vs. cost, etc… Good design is not maximization of every feature but an optimization among alternatives for the design goals.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

An unwillingness to set priorities, to negotiate, and to select among viable alternatives often stalls a team in a search for perfection.

33. Make sure it doesn’t work the wrong way.

The downward transfer of structural forces through a building is the load path. Loads sometimes follow a path different from the one intended. For example, when a non-structural partition is built under a structural beam, the beam may sag under normal loading, transfer loads to the partition, which may transfer the loads to the floor below, causing the floor to sag and even fail. Figuring out how to make a system work is as important as figuring how to make it not work in undesirable ways.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

This is also true for organizational incentives: make sure you are not inadvertently encouraging the wrong behavior or failing to provide incentives for the behavior that you want. If you tell your team you want to see more experimentation but punish failure instead of rewarding learning (for example by requiring dissemination of lessons learned and praising people who took prudent risks) your people won’t bring you bad news. But your competitors will.

38. Knowledge is a Key Factor in Production
Inventing is the mixing of brains and materials.
The more brains you use, the less materials you need.”
Charles Kettering
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

The  knowledge and insight that your team brings to bear on a problem has a strong impact on the cost of the solution and the resulting output. Unfortunately it’s also true that the knowledge and insight competitors bring to bear can lower their relative cost, quality of solution, and time to solution.  When you couple that with learning curve effects (the longer a team works on a problem the more skilled they become at solving it, the longer a team builds a product the faster and cheaper they are able to product it) you have to be careful entering established markets where competitors have been operating for a long time. To do this successfully you normally have to bring new knowledge to bear to take advantage of a recent development that has obsoleted some fraction of a competitors existing expertise set.  Two rules of thumb I use in this area:

  1. Focus on learning, in particular forming explicit models and predictions you can use to test their validity.  As Arie De Geus observed almost three decades ago in Planning as Learning: “The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
  2. Plan three moves ahead: have contingency plans not only for building on success but for recovering from likely setbacks.

47 More inspections and fewer inspections both produce more errors
A false positive–an inspection that fails a working part–incurs the unnecessary loss of the item. A false negative–an inspection that passes a truly defective part–may enable a failure once the part is placed in service that can have serious consequences. The optimal level of inspection balances the economics of replacing false positives with the human and moral consequences of failing to detect real errors.
From “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School” by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick

It’s all too easy to neglect the impact of false positives and false negatives. One area where this can be especially problematic is exploring new markets where you may have a high false negative rate (a good product may have difficulty finding a niche) or you have triggered a false positive by asking for feedback from friends who don’t want to disappoint you.

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