How are we doing?

Source: Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

I spent a large part of this week online at the annual meeting of the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of ABET.

What does it mean?

The EAC has about 140 members who serve as chairs for teams that review BS and MS engineering programs in the US and around the world. Most BS engineering programs in the US are ABET accredited. Graduates of accredited programs have certain privileges. Some companies preferentially hire only graduates of ABET accredited programs. Graduates are eligible to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the first step in becoming a licensed professional engineer. Most importantly, prospective students know that an ABET accredited program and has been found to meet certain criteria for the program.

Maintaining ABET accreditation requires that, every six years, the program submit a program report demonstrating that the program meets eight criteria concerning students (evaluating student performance, monitoring their progress, and advising them), program educational objectives (what graduates are expected to attain within a few years after graduation), student outcomes (what students are expected to know and be able to do by the time of graduation), continuous improvement (documented processes for assessing and evaluating the extent to which student outcomes are being met and using those results for continuous improvement), curriculum (a minimum number of semester house of math and science and of engineering topics, as well as a broad education and a culminating major engineering design experience), faculty (of sufficient number and with appropriate competencies and qualifications), facilities, and institutional support. The team reviews this report and visits the program to determine if the criteria have been met.

The program has the opportunity to correct errors of fact in the report and to submit additional information in a process that lasts almost an entire year. Reflecting its commitment to processes, continuous improvement, and certification, ABET’s own processes are ISO 9001:2015 certified. ABET holds itself to similar standards as those used to judge the programs. Each program report is edited by the team chair and, in turn, three more editors, each with increasing ABET experience. At the July meeting, team chairs meet in panels to review the reports, taking into account suggestions made by a consistency committee who have reviewed all reports. Finally, the entire EAC approves the hundreds of reports, mostly on a consent agenda, but a handful of programs are discussed and voted on by the entire EAC. I cannot, of course, discuss any of the reports or discussions because confidentiality is a requirement of all our activities. Only the final results are available publicly, in this list of accredited programs.

Program evaluators and team chairs undergo training and retraining. I did an online refresher training before the meeting and attended three additional live training sessions during the week. Everyone evaluates everyone, with the programs giving feedback and team chairs and team members all evaluating each other.

While the ABET meeting has always taken place in July in Baltimore, we met online in 2020 and 2021. We also did virtual instead of in person visits this year, a change that required even more training for team chairs and evaluators.

All the people I have mentioned, except for the very highest editors in the review process, are volunteers.

What does it mean for you?

I am very pleased to be involved in such an excellent organization. I do not pretend that I enjoy every moment, that I do not get sometimes frustrated or even angry, nor that ABET does not make mistakes, but the overwhelming emphasis on processes and continuous improvement creates an environment that is, mostly, a good one to work in or, in this case, to volunteer in.

Also, in my 40 years as an engineering professor, especially in my 21 years as a department chair, I participated in many ABET reviews as part of the program being reviewed. Again, I didn’t enjoy every moment, I sometimes got frustrated or even angry, and I thought ABET made some mistakes, but I saw continuous improvement in ABET. I also found that the criteria and the need for accreditation provided wide but effective guideways for our programs.

My message for you is that all the developments and methods for continuous improvement really work. An emphasis on processes, using teams, training people well, providing avenues for feedback, etc., etc. –  it all works to create an organization that functions well.

To me, the essence of continuous improvement is continuously asking “how are we doing?” and then answering that question by collecting and evaluating data. That framework is the core of industrial engineering, my field of expertise.

COVID required all of us, including ABET to move many activities online instead of in person. ABET visits will be virtual again this year, but we will return to an in person meeting in July 2022, so discussions have already begun on what features of online meetings could and should perhaps be maintained in an in person meeting. Since the 140 members of EAC almost all already sit in front of personal computers at the in person meeting, in order to access the many documents we need to review during the meeting, can we use some online features in the future? For example, at our roll call for the newly seated Commission for 2021-2022, we used Zoom features to enable all of us to actually see all of the commissioners as they gave a simple “here.” In a room of 140 people, that is not possible. That is a simple and perhaps unimportant feature, but it personalized the meeting in a nice way. In fact, when anyone spoke I could see and hear them better than I sometimes do during in person meetings.  Also, Zoom provides an easy way to move into and out of the waiting room Commissioners who need to be excused from discussions of particular programs due to conflicts of interest.

Of course, in person meetings have advantages, most notable the hallway conversations. We are looking forward to being back to together in July 2022 but reflecting on how our processes might change – for continuous improvement.

Where can I learn more?

The ABET website has more information about how ABET operates. ABET has other commissions besides the EAC that accredit programs in Applied and Natural Science, Computing, Engineering and Technology.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Clean water

Image source: US Library of Commerce, 1943, which states that the image has no know restrictions on use. “Trampas, New Mexico. Water is precious at the home of Juan Lopez, majordomo (mayor), but the family try hard to keep clean and neat, even though they do use the same water and the same towel.”

What’s new?

On 1 July 2021, Our World in Data published data on people’s access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and basic handwashing facilities. One in four people do not have access to safe drinking water. Nearly half of the world do not have access to safe sanitation. Nearly one-third of the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities.

What does it mean?

Public health measures, especially access to clean water, are widely agreed by historians to have had the largest impact on quality and length of human life, even as compared to such amazing discoveries as antibiotics and vaccines. As summarized by Claire Ninde of the San Juan Basin Public Health agency:

Over the last 200 years, U.S. life expectancy has more than doubled to almost 80 years (78.8 in 2015), with vast improvements in health and quality of life. However, while most people imagine medical advancements to be the reason for this increase, the largest gain in life expectancy occurred between 1880 and 1920 due to public health improvements such as control of infectious diseases, more abundant and safer foods, cleaner water, and other nonmedical social improvements.

In a 2008 article in the American Journal of Infection Control, three authors discussed the intertwined effects of personal and community changes:

[H]ygiene improvements at the individual and community levels, such as sanitary living conditions and practices and potable water and sewage facilities, have played a major role in reducing morbidity and mortality from infections ….

For example, frequent handwashing – an individual level behavior – can be effective only if people have access to clean water – a community level improvement. Of course, it is worth noting that while the need is great in many parts of the world, even in the US, these basic systems are sometimes lacking; see Flint, Michigan.

Engineers have an obvious and large role in such community improvements. As the CDC states:

Engineers are an integral part of the public health team that helps define what is possible, identify existing limitations, and shape workable solutions. Their efforts have contributed immensely to reducing disease and preventing injury in the United States and around the world.

The data reviewed by Our World in Data are part of a review of progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were set in 2015. Engineers are playing important roles in progress on these Goals. For example, in its 2019 endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the American Society of Civil Engineers said

By helping meet the SDGs the engineering profession contributes to a world where all people have access to the knowledge and resources with which to meet their basic human needs and promote sustainable development in such areas as water supply and sanitation, food production and processing, housing and construction, energy, transportation and communication, income generation, and employment creation.

What does it mean for you?

The positive effect of individual and community level efforts in sanitation provides a lesson in how simple measures consistently applied can have amazing results. I am sure you can easily generate examples from manufacturing (regular maintenance and scheduled safety checks), from customer service (regularly thanking customers), and so forth, of how simple improvements can have positive effects in your organization. What are the simple behaviors, consistently performed, that could have big paybacks for your organization?

The other lesson is that obtaining such effects relies both on individual efforts but also on community – or system – improvements. Just as people can keep their hands clean only if they have access to clean water, improvements in the actions of individual workers require the creation of systems that support those actions. For example, exhortations to be safe must be supported by the provision of safe systems, equipment to keep workers safe, and other such measures.

Where can I learn more?

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are explained here. It is supported by a plan of action described here.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent review of public health historically and currently.

Maintaining

Maintenance worker José Rodriguez paints a wall. 1994, St. Joseph’s Hospital (Paterson, N.J.) Source: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center. This photo is in the public domain.

What’s new?

The New York Times, as well as other sources, reported that maintenance and repairs had been neglected for many years in the Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida that collapsed with significant loss of life on 24 June. The Times quotes an undated letter from the board to residents before the collapse: “For the last few years, your board has recognized that our building has been neglected, repairs have been repeatedly postponed or simply patched up, and our property values have remained sadly below what they should be.” Much more information will be and should be explored to determine definitively the causes of the collapse.

What does it mean?

I recall many years ago that a friend who was considering buying a house for the first time asked how to buy one that would need little maintenance. I laughed and said it was impossible. I have always tried to do the right thing by the three houses I have owned. In my first house, I chose to make an expensive long-lasting repair to a creek wall near the house, rather than a quick fix, knowing that I was unlikely to benefit from the long-term ownership of that house nor from a corresponding increase in the value of the house. I took similar action regarding repair of the outside deck in my second house, and last summer we had a metal roof put on our 20-year-old house, a roof that will surely outlive us.

For engineers, the field of engineering economy deals with the economics of long-lived assets. The ABET criteria for accreditation of an undergraduate program in engineering include as a required student outcome “an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.”

The total cost of ownership of ownership is a concept that should be familiar to every business. The initial cost of equipment is only a fraction of the total cost of ownership. For example, this brochure from the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service advises that for high cost agricultural machines, “25% of the purchase price will approximate annual total cost” to operate and maintain the equipment.

Every long-lived piece of property should be acquired only with the financial commitment to its safe operation and maintenance over the planned lifetime. Any other approach risks lives and the financial sustainability of the organization.

A discussion on reddit pointed me to an article on Slate that puts the Florida collapse in the context of the growth of condominiums in the 1970s and the inability of homeowner associations to handle the maintenance costs with fees set too low by developers who cared more about profitable sales than about long-term sustainability. The author draws the analogy with municipal governments that have survived on low taxes by deferring maintenance and failing to plan for replacement:

Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn has written persuasively about this phenomenon in the suburbs, whose low-tax model only works until the end of the infrastructure life cycle, at which point sprawl becomes very expensive to maintain. In the king-size homeowners association known as California, it’s become common for even the richest jurisdictions to be unable to afford basic repairs to roads and bridges that are reaching the end of their useful life.

The reddit discussion includes several laments about the neglect of maintenance in various industries, including water systems, software, and manufacturing. The overall message is that too many people emphasize the short term over the long term. One comment points to The Long Now Foundation, founded, it almost hardly needs saying, by Stewart Brand, which “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

What does it mean for you?

I have twice used the word sustainability in this article. The Florida collapse has highlighted our poor infrastructure at a time when debate is underway for funding improvements. Recent events have highlighted many societal practices that are simply unsustainable: buildings collapse and so do people. How can you ensure that your organization is sustainable in all of its practices?

At a minimum, you should reexamine the maintenance practices of your organization. Do you know the maintenance schedules and actual practices of your organization? Are you using up resources and people without adequate planning for sustainability?

I have always liked the word “custodian” meaning someone who has the responsibility for looking after something. You and I are custodians of the resources we currently own or manage. We should strive to leave those resources in at least as good a state as they were when we acquired them.

Where can I learn more?

An Internet search on total cost of ownership or life cycle analysis will turn up many useful pages, and many companies willing to help you perform these analyses well. Total preventive maintenance is another useful subject for search.

The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is an excellent source of information on the status of the country’s public infrastructure.

Water is weird

Source: Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

Two researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) have shown that when a graphene electrode is placed into water the molecules of water closest to the electrode “align in a completely different way than the rest of the water molecules,” a result that was not anticipated. The findings may have implications in many fields, especially in methods proposed for desalinization of water.  

What does it mean?

Water has many strange properties, according to Alok Jha, author of The Water Book. Unlike most other liquids, water expands when it freezes; thus, ice floats in water, insulating life under the ice. Water in rocks expands in the cold and cracks the rocks open, an important fact in the creation of soil. Water, even though made from two gases, is a liquid. It has a surprisingly large surface tension, enabling insects to walk on it. The attraction between water molecules leads to capillary action, important to all life. Almost anything dissolves in water. I could go on and on since Rachel Brazil claims that water “has at least 66 properties that differ from most liquids – high surface tension, high heat capacity, high melting and boiling points and low compressibility.”

The electrode the researchers used is made from graphene, a very interesting form of carbon in which the carbon atoms are arranged in a single layer honeycomb lattice. It has promise to improve battery performance, hence its use as an electrode in this experiment.

The result they observed occurs at the surface of the electrode, where the water and electrode meet. Many interesting chemical and physical effects occur at surfaces. One of the researchers at USC concentrates on the molecular structure and physics of surfaces,” as explained at this web page about the Benderskii Research Group.

What does it mean for you?

I draw two lessons from these facts about water and from the newly reported research. First, science has increased our understanding of the world amazingly, but some simple parts of our world still defy our understanding; at least sometimes engineers can use the natural world in ways that science does not actually understand well. The fact that discoveries continue to be made about water – water! – amazes me.

Second, discoveries continue to be made that will improve our ability to generate, distribute, and use electrical energy. While not mentioned in the article, this result has implications for the development of batteries. I believe that we must move much more quickly than we are doing now to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases to head off the climate changes that are occurring, but I also believe that surprises await us in science, engineering, and technology that will help us along this path. Stay tuned for more news.

Where can you learn more?

As you might expect, the US Geological Services (USGS) has a great page about the properties of water. This BBC animation, narrated by author Alok Jha, explores some of the strange properties of water. Some of those properties are listed here.

Simulation

Source: https://rossetti.github.io/RossettiArenaBook/modeling-a-simple-discrete-event-dynamic-system.html  This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

What’s new?

In a 10 June 2021 posting on IISE Connect, Professor Manuel Rossetti of the University of Arkansas announced the availability of the third edition of his textbook Simulation Modeling and Arena as an open text. Previous editions were published in book form by Wiley, and Professor Rossetti decided to make this edition available for free, saying:

With technology constantly changing, I thought that it would be useful to get this book on-line so that I can more readily keep it up to date. It is my hope to provide updated versions when there are significant changes made within Arena.

What does it mean?

Humans are makers, including makers of tools. An important tool for humans and especially for humans who are engineers is a model, that is, a representation, sometimes conceptual or physical but often mathematical, of a real-world system.

Mathematical models can be analyzed using mathematics; that is, we can use mathematics to elicit results concerning the behavior of the model. For example, the differential equation that describes a pendulum swinging in small angles can be solved to give a mathematical description of the pendulum’s motion over time, but the differential equation is an approximation and does not hold if the pendulum swings in a large arc. Also, the more accurate differential equation that describes large swings cannot be solved to give an equation of motion over time, but rather must be solved using numerical methods, again giving an approximate solution.

The real-world systems of our organizations are complicated, so the models of them must be complicated. Also, unlike a pendulum whose motion can be predicted with certainty, we are inherently uncertain about what will happen in the future with many real-world systems. Professor Rossetti starts his book by describing the behavior of an emergency room in a hospital. Randomness abounds in such a system, so any model must use the mathematics of uncertainty. Probability is the field that enables us, indeed requires us, to talk precisely about our uncertainty.

Having good data makes your model a more accurate representation of the real-world system. But even without data, methods can elicit the knowledge of experts and express them in a way that can be used in a simulation.

Professor Rossetti uses the simulation computer program Arena throughout his book.  The graphical user interface of Arena supports a drag-and-drop approach to select model components from menus. If you want to get a feel for what kinds of systems can be modeled, what the necessary steps are, how Arena is programmed, and what the resulting model looks like, section 4.5 of the book has an extended example. Depending on your background, you may not understand all of what is shown there, but you will get a feel for simulation models and Arena. The book has other examples that will help you understand simulation more.

The book is not about the simulation of all systems. “This book primarily examines stochastic, dynamic, discrete systems.” “Stochastic” means that the system has randomness, “dynamic” means that it changes over time, and “discrete” means that changes in the system occur at specific times (for example, when a patient arrives at the emergency department) not continuously (for example, when water flows out of a reservoir). Many of our organizations have systems that can be modeled in such a way.

What does it mean for you?

As Professor Rossetti points out: “A simulation model can be used to predict future behavior through running what-if scenarios.” You can perform experiments in the simulation, experiments that you can’t perform on the real-world system. What if the number of people arriving at the emergency room spikes due to a pandemic? What if we added two more nurses at certain times of the day? You can ask – and answer – questions like these and determine the likely effects on important performance measures, such as the waiting time for patients, the number of patients in the hospital, and the health outcomes of the patients. The simulation operates, of course, much more rapidly than the real-world system so you can simulate years of operation in seconds. Thus, you can ask a lot of questions and a get a feel for how the simulation performs in many different scenarios. Section 8.1.1 shows the results of several what-if simulations of the model from section 4.5.

A key point to remember, however, is one of my favorite phrases, “it’s only a model.” A model gives you numerical predictions of the future, but because of the randomness in the real-world system and because a model does not represent all aspects of the real-world system, most people use simulations of models to gain insight rather than exact predictions. For example, what changes to the model have the biggest impact on performance measures?

If you haven’t considered using simulation in your organization, Professor Rossetti’s book is a place to start. I think you will get a good idea from the many examples in the book about whether this approach is worth trying for your organization.

Where can you learn more?

The major point of this post is that you can learn more in Professor Rossetti’s book – and it is free. His book has advice on how to continue your education in simulation.

A library of videos about Arena is available here, including videos showing the animation of Arena models, a very powerful feature for understanding a model.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Your craft

“Funky sculpture at the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware.” Source: The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018701329/, which says “No known restrictions on publication.”

What’s new?

I subscribe to the magazine American Craft. The Summer 2021 issue has articles on

  • Sylvie Rosenthal who makes sculptures that combine animals and architecture,
  • Detroit metal artist Tiff Massey,
  • Artists whose works educate and advocate for ocean life,
  • Research by Namita Gupta Wiggers on craft products as “social objects that are inscribed with histories and narratives that can tell us something about the world.”
  • The artist in residency program at the Kohler Company in Wisconsin, and
  • Textile florist Yi Hsuan Sung’s use of agar, a high-strength gel made from seaweed.

The theme of this issue is Flourish, about which the editor says:

A flourish is a bold, extravagant gesture. To flourish means to grow or develop in a vigorous way. Flourishing also speaks to having a strong sense of well-being and meaning. So, for this issue, we looked to the craft community to find stories about many ways of flourishing. One thing that became clear when we put this collection of stories together was that flourishing is deeply connected to community.

What does it mean?

The word “craft” is loaded with different meanings and uses. Craft can invite women in (arts and crafts) but can also shut them out (craft workers). Is a creation art or craft? Craft is generally low brow, not high brow. Craft may emphasize function while art emphasizes decoration.

Another article in the Summer 2021 issues,  titled “The Art of the Flourish,” points out that function and decoration can merge. Vintage radiators are designed with fins to maximize surface for radiation of heat to the room, and the result is pleasing to the eye. My partner and I have visited Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill several times and delight in the spare, functional designs there (Shaker Mother Ann Lee said, “Put your hands to work and give your hearts to God”).

Engineers say that their unique function is design, but I have had many delightful conversations with art professors about how the concept of design unites engineering and art, with various combinations of knowledge, skill, and theory required to design. When does someone transition from being an artist to an artisan to a manufacturer? Craft usually involves a handmade object, but all crafters use tools and many use machines.

Why do people craft? Rather than calling humans homo sapiens some prefer homo faber with making, not thinking, as the defining function of modern humans. Humans emerged with the first chip flaked off a stone 2.6 million years ago.  That act was the root of craft, art, and engineering.

What does it mean for you?

For me, one of the unifying concepts in craft is process – how is something made. Design matters, but then the design in the maker’s head has to be made. I enjoy reading American Craft to see what people have crafted but also to see how they crafted it. Another unifying concepts is materials. The article on agar has details on the properties of that material.  I enjoy reading about the materials the crafters use.

For you, I suggest that inspiration can come from many sources. You should be constantly scanning the horizon, in your trade and business publications, for innovations and ideas that will have impact in your industry, but publications far from your field can be inspiring too.

For example, the work of Namita Gupta Wiggers that I mentioned earlier includes her invented word “craftscape” to emphasize the cultural connections represented in a craft object. Her work may illuminate manufacturing work through her ideas about how labor and raw materials are transformed into usable objects. If you seek to create a corporate culture, aspects of her work may spark ideas for you about the deeper meanings of objects for the people in your organization. Culture is not just ideas but also objects.

For another example, the article on the Kohler Company mentions the not uncommon use of their bathtubs as shrines: upended and half buried to enclose a religious figure. Do you know how your products are actually being used?

Print magazines are not, of course, the only way for you to find inspiration. Certainly a deep dive in the rabbit holes of the Internet will uncover much good – and much that is a complete waste of your time. For me, magazines have the advantage of being curated carefully and of being in print. I  linger with a magazine – and coffee – knowing that people spent time thinking, planning, photographing, writing, rewriting, editing, and formatting. American Craft is a well crafted magazine.

Where can you learn more?

American Craft magazine is published by the American Craft Council.

You can search and browse among magazines at Magazines.com, Magazine.store, or Magzter.  The top 10 magazines in the US by circulation include one I had never heard of:  Game Informer Magazine, published by game retailer GameStop. Your local library probably has many magazines for you to dip into; I found American Craft through my library and read it there until I decided I had to have my own copies.

What magazines do you subscribe to? I subscribe to Make, New Scientist, and Smithsonian, among others, in addition to receiving magazines and journals from my professional societies, ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education),  IISE  (Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers) and ASQ (American Society for Quality). I also receive several publications from genealogical societies, to support my genealogical hobby.

Inside the volcano

Diagram of a volcanic eruption. Source: Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

In the 22 May 2021 issue of New Scientist, Michael Roberts of the Cambridge Image Analysis group at the University of Cambridge reported on a study of attempts to use machine-learning (an artificial intelligence technique) to diagnose COVID-19 and to predict how patients would fare with the disease. He and his colleagues examined over 300 papers published between 1 January and 3 October 2020 and found that none had produced a useful tool.

What does it mean?

I have written about artificial intelligence (AI) before in this blog. On 15 May 2020, I noted that the inability of many artificial intelligence based techniques to explain in human terms how they reached a conclusion limits their usefulness in circumstances where an explanation is needed as part of the decision making process. On 13 June 2020 I wrote that the computer program Watson had been a great success on the TV game show Jeopardy but had failed to be useful in the medical field.  On 2 Jan 2021, I cautioned against the hype concerning AI, in this case regarding a study meant to increase our understanding of whale calls. In my recent (8 May 2021) review of my year of blogging, I noted that AI was the one technology about which I was not generally positive. In this blog post, I am again going to caution about AI hype and about the need for a model that humans can understand.

I am heavily influenced in my opinion about AI by the results of a PhD dissertation I advised at Ohio State in 2002, titled “Quantitative measurement of loyalty under principal-agent relationship.” Keiko (Kay) Yamakawa attempted to detect disloyal insurance agents for a large insurance company, that is, insurance agents who issued policies from several companies and whose behavior indicated they may be failing to recommend products from this particular insurance company. Dr Yamakawa had little success with AI approaches (such as a hidden Markov model) but found that a more traditional approach using control charts was successful. The former approach, hidden Markov models, is based on a search for a statistical model that reproduces the patterns in the data and, even if successful, is unable to be used to generate an explanation of what it did. The latter approach, control charts, is based on classical hypothesis testing (with all its benefits and faults) to detect if a process that has been behaving with statistical regularity has moved out of that state of statistical control; the method includes charts that visually display an explanation of the result. Indeed I was dismayed that it took Kay and me so long to decide to try control charts since the formulation of the problem was clearly the detection of a process that had moved out of control.

Nineteen years later AI techniques and computer capabilities for handling huge data bases have advanced greatly, but I believe that the general findings of that dissertation still apply. AI techniques are mesmerizing in their promise to detect patterns and apply them to practical situations without the need to understand the domain. Other techniques require more domain knowledge and more understanding of the particular problem being attacked. A tension always exists between those who have powerful techniques and seek to apply them in disparate areas, sometimes in areas where they have little domain knowledge, and those who have the domain knowledge and watch the masters of technique flounder.

Paul Lingenfelter cites political scientist Donald Stokes as describing the statistical technique of factor analysis as “seizing your data by the throat and demanding: Speak to me!” Researchers must always guard against uncovering spurious patterns that occur just by chance (for example, by reserving some data to test findings). Increasing access to big data sets and computing power and increasing use of sophisticated data analysis techniques have created many successes but have also created failures such as this one in COVID diagnosis.

In 1947, economist Tjallings Koopmans wrote a cautionary article titled “Measurement Without Theory.” In reviewing a book on business cycles, Koopmans lamented the authors’ attempt to measure and analyze data without the use of theory. Koopmans wrote:

Measurable effects of economic actions are scrutinized, to all appearance, in almost complete detachment from any knowledge we may have of the motives of such actions. The movements of economic variables are studied as if they were the eruptions of a mysterious volcano whose boiling caldron can never be penetrated. There is no explicit discussion at all of the problem of prediction, its possibilities and limitations, with or without structural change, although surely the history of the volcano is important primarily as a key to its future activities. There is no discussion whatever as to what bearing the methods used, and the provisional results reached, may have on questions of economic policy.

Almost 75 years later, those sentences still bite.

What does it mean for you?

In my 11 July 2020 blog on the topic of models, I cited the quote “the purpose of modeling is insight, not numbers.” In creating models of real world systems and in analyzing data, I urge you to focus on understanding the system, not just on finding empirical patterns.  A black box that takes input and gives output is less useful in the long run than a transparent model that promotes understanding. You should consciously be building models – mental or mathematical – of your organization and the environment in which it functions.

Where can you learn more?

Koopmans’s article was published in The Review of Economic Statistics, volume 29, number 3, August 1947, pages 161-172.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Do Everything Better

Source: US Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain. “Astra, Red Cross health fairy, brings gifts of health principles from the milky way to the juniors of the Prince School, Boston. The health fairy, who serves the Boston Metropolitan Chapter, is at the right, standing. Pupils of the school, members of the Junior Red Cross, who assisted her in a health play program given recently at the school, as they appear in the picture.” February 1922.

What’s new?

Inspired by Ray Dalio’s 2017 bestselling book Principles, performance coach Brad Stulberg put together his own list of principles as “a foundation for a better you.” Pocket brought it to my attention.

What does it mean?

A 2013 review of Jessica Lamb Shapiro’s book on the self-help industry in the United States, Promise Land, cites “an Ancient Egyptian genre called ‘Sebayt,’ an instructional literature on life (‘Sebayt’ means ‘teaching’)” as the “progenitor of self-help books.” I haven’t been in a bookstore for over a year, but I am sure that the self-help section at my local Barnes and Noble store still stretches over many shelves.

I haven’t read any of these books by Lamb Shapiro, Dalio, or Stulberg. For a description of the book by Ray Dalio, founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, I am relying heavily on this article by Elle McFarlane. She reviews the book’s contents and Dalio’s five principles, including “Use the 5-step process to get what you want out of life.” That process has five stages:

  1. Having clear goals
  2. Identifying the problems that prevent you from achieving these goals
  3. Getting to the root cause of these problems
  4. Designing plans to help you overcome these root causes
  5. Enforcing these plans to get your desired results .

Stulberg, inspired by Dalio, created a list of eight principles, including: Focus on the Process, Not Results (“Research shows that concentrating on the process is best for both performance and mental health”); Take Small, Consistent Steps to Achieve Big Gains (“Small and consistent victories compound over time, leading to massive gains”), and Make the Hard Thing Easier (“Rather than relying completely on self-control, intentionally design your environment to make the hard thing easier”).

When I taught the course Introduction to Industrial and Systems Engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo for many years, I required students to read and report on a book, chosen from a list I provided or approved by me if not on the list. One of those books was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. His seven habits include Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind. “Habit 2 is based on imagination–the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation.”

What does it mean for you?

I am sure you have already noted that some of these personal principles echo strongly organizational principles. What works well for self-improvement also works for group-improvement.

I am an industrial engineer. My elevator speech to answer the question “what is industrial engineering?” is that industrial engineers are about efficiency, quality, and safety. We design the workplace so that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. Chapter 2 of the textbook I wrote for my introductory course lists “Big ideas you will hear frequently” and some of these ideas about industrial engineering could fit comfortably into any self-help list (“Small incremental improvements of a process add up, but more radical reengineering may sometimes be needed”).

Dalio’s five-step process is very similar to Six Sigma’s improvement cycle (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control). Stulberg’s focus on the process is one of the core ideas of industrial engineering (in my book, I wrote: “The process for doing a task makes a big difference in how efficiently, well, and safely the task is done”). Taking small consistent steps is another way to describe continue improvement. Making Hard Things Easier is poke yoke or error-proofing. Many of these principles also take a systems view; for example, Dalio’s first principle is to understand reality.

What works well for self-improvement also works for group-improvement. Rather than relying on one of these gurus to provide you with a list of principles for how you want to act in your personal life and in your organization, I challenge you to learn from them (and many others) to create your own set of principles that you use to improve your personal life and your organization. What are your guiding principles for improvement of self and improvement of your organization?

Where can you learn more?

Of course there are many web pages that will give you advice on creating your principles or your core values and even lists of principles you can select from (101 Timeless Principles to Guide You to Your Best Life). For some reason, most lists of principles have an odd number of items (5, 7, 101), but Stulberg has 8. Make of that what you will.

Of course actions must reflect principles. As Patrick Lencioni wrote in 2002: “Enron—although an extreme case—is hardly the only company with a hollow set of values.”

Of course there is a contrary view: Why You Shouldn’t Be A Person Of Principle. Moral particularism points out that any set of ethical principles may seem fine. “But then you run into that odd, unexpected situation where following your rulebook doesn’t seem so neat and tidy. This new case is special, unique, and unanticipated by your ethical system. In fact, it just feels wrong to follow the rules here in this instance. Do you go with your rulebook, or your current intuition?” One of my guiding principles is: know the rules, choose which ones to follow, and live with the consequences.

Taking Care of People

Source: The US Library of Congress, 1942 July. This image is in the public domain.

“Women in war. Machine gun production. Intent on the important job at hand, Elsie M. Terry uses a precision snap gauge on the machine gun part she has milled. One of 2,000 women employed by a Midwest plant, converted from spark plugs to machine gun manufacture, Mrs. Terry typified the American woman war worker. Serious, skilled and reliable, she is making an invaluable contribution to the war effort. A.C. Spark Plugs”

What’s new?

A December 2020 article from Modern Machine Shop, which somehow just caught my attention, says that a company acquisition has to focus on the human aspects to be successful.

What does it mean?

The article, by Christina M Fuges of MoldMaking Technology reports on the company B-Square Precision Group, founded by two individuals (Mark Beck and Tony Butler) with the plan to acquire a portfolio of companies in high precision manufacturing. The article touches on many trends, including the impending retirement of many owners of smaller shops, manufacturing approaches such as lean and ISO certification, and strategies for portfolio construction, such as combining companies that can cross sell each other’s capabilities. The central idea of the article is the need to focus on people.

With its goal of acquiring other companies, B-Square has many people issues to pay attention to, since the retiring managers and the continuing employees of acquired companies often legitimately fear that the company will be broken up, that cost cutting measure will be implemented and will degrade work enjoyment, and that any existing company culture will be brushed aside.  

The B-Square approach includes the importance of training employees, initially and on an ongoing basis, putting safety first in the list of five metrics to be tracked, improvements to pay and benefits, improvements to shop conditions, and increasing collaboration within the company.

What does it mean for you?

Precision manufacturing requires high end machines and highly skilled workers, so one could argue that the focus on the humans in B-Square is necessary to retain employees and to maintain the necessarily high level of skill, but I argue that all companies could benefit from treating their workers as highly skilled and as valuable. I have never worked in restaurants (my partner Mark has) but I know that high levels of skill in the kitchen and on the floor result in a much better customer experience. On the other end, as a highly skilled professional, I have been appalled to realize several times in my career that my employer viewed me as simply another professor, easily replaced and not really needing to be nurtured.

Management advice often focuses on how to treat workers, with emphasis on teams, incentives, and more. The risk, I think, is platitudes. An encouraging feature of this article is a quote from an employee: “Mark and Tony stress that it’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s not about management. It’s about the team,” suggesting that the management in this case is acting, not just talking.

Engineering has a long history of recognizing the importance of humans in systems. My field, industrial and systems engineering is a leader, with specialties in human factors, cognitive engineering, and ergonomics. The electrical engineering society IEEE has a division called Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. While the second and third words in that trio have not aged well, the name lives on.  

The truth is that all production systems are systems of technology and humans. You imperil the success of the system by underemphasis on either of those pieces, from the simple fact that people have to use the technology correctly to gain the benefits, through to more sophisticated ideas about using technology to augment what workers do (from decision support systems through heads up displays for pilots). If you want technology to work for you, you must have a high level of attention to the humans in the system. Technology works best when it is considered as part of the system of machines and humans.

Where can you learn more?

You can learn much about how to view systems of machines and people through many fields. Search for phrases such as socio technical systems (applied, for example, in healthcare), human factors (this blog post explains four approaches to that topic), and cognitive engineering. Recent developments have highlighted how automation and AI (artificial intelligence) should work together with humans; see, for example, new ideas on augmented workers.

Almost all approaches to systems thinking include humans in the system.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Sense, compute, control

Source: Wikimedia. This image is in the public domain.

What’s new?

At Engineering360, technical writer Janeita Reid writes about the use of sensors throughout the electrical grid, from generation to use.

What does it mean?

My father was one of the chief architects of TASI, the multiplexing system used in the first transatlantic telephone cable system in 1956. The principles of Time Assignment Speech Interpolation had been known but could not be implemented with slow, bulky, over-heating vacuum tubes; the invention of the transistor in 1947 enabled the application of these principles.  But the invention of the transistor built upon and then required more engineering developments in order to lead to the mass manufacturer of transistors which supported developments such as TASI.  

The invention and development of modern electronics continues to enable more inventions and developments. Rarely if ever does one simple device appear in a flash of genius and lead immediately to new uses. Instead, a soup of swirling ideas and devices leads to constant improvement in the ability of devices to sense, compute, and control other devices. You can see these results in the small computer you use every day, your cell phone, with its amazing ability to help you to communicate, to navigate, and to find information.  

The Department of Engineering that I chaired at Colorado State University-Pueblo offers engineering degrees in two areas: industrial engineering and mechatronics. (To be clear, the two undergraduate degrees are the BS in industrial engineering and the BS in engineering with specialization in mechatronics). Industrial engineering is about designing systems to support efficiency, quality, and safety. Mechatronics combines mechanical and electrical engineering with computer programming to create useful devices. The two fields overlap in many ways; one is their overlap in the use of sensors to collect data, data that can be analyzed for long term systems improvement and for real time decision making.

The essence of mechatronics is the creation of devices that sense, compute, and control. The essence of industrial engineering is using information to improve the operation of systems. When developments that were originally a topic of advanced research in labs such as those at Bell Labs become embodied in undergraduate engineering degrees, you know that progress has been made.

One of Ms Reid’s opening sentences, “Advanced sensors are among transformative disruptors building the case of distributed energy resource systems paired with superior data-driven optimization capabilities,” supports the story I have told. Mechatronic devices, especially the sensors inside them, are the keys that enable better decision making, especially using the optimization techniques of operations research, a part of industrial engineering. She then describes the role of sensors and optimization in power generation (via wind, sun, biomass, and water), power transmission, and power use.

What does it mean for you?

The soup of swirling ideas and devices include sensors and optimization as well as much more. These ideas and devices are revolutionizing the provision of electric power and, as Ms. Reid concludes, enabling the transition to renewable energy. She also touches on the interesting dynamic between decentralization and centralization. Electrical generation can be increasingly less centralized, but sensors support remote control and management of those assets.

Whatever your organization, you should be watching for such trends in sensing, computation, and control to support better decision making. These trends enable you to have a better real time knowledge of what is happening throughout your organization and the system in which it operates. Your approach can start, for example, with Internet searches set up as alerts, to keep you aware of what is happening in your field. What other sensors can you set up for your organization?

Where can you learn more?

 Engineering360 has an impressive list of sensors here, with links to more information for each.

The website of the US Department of Energy is one good place to follow trends in energy, especially renewable energy and changes to the grid.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.