If it ain’t broke, it can still be improved.

“Lillian Moller Gilbreth, of Montclair, New Jersey was a pioneer in engineering and scientific management. She and her husband were the parents of twelve children and the subject of a book, about their application of scientific management principles to the home. Cheaper by the Dozen. This picture was taken in 1921.” Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lillian_Moller_Gilbreth,_1921.jpg

What’s new?

In July 2020, Production Machining magazine announced their 2020 class of 10 Emerging Leaders, including Morgan Miller, continuous improvement coordinator at C&A Tool, in Churubusco, Indiana. Her nominator, Ryan Miller, an engineer at the company, is quoted in the article as saying “In her short amount of time with the company, she has made the largest positive impact that I have seen in 12 years here.”

What does it mean?

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Miller graduated from Purdue University in 2016 with a BS in industrial engineering, a program in which I was a professor many years ago. How can such a new graduate make such an impact in such a short time?

The answer is industrial engineering, an often overlooked, and sometimes disrespected type of engineering.

According to the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE): “Industrial and systems engineering is concerned with the design, improvement and installation of integrated systems of people, materials, information, equipment and energy. It draws upon specialized knowledge and skill in the mathematical, physical, and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design, to specify, predict, and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems.”

I told my students that, because industrial engineering is not well known, they needed to have and practice their elevator pitch: what is industrial engineering and how can it help an organization.

Industrial engineering is about efficiency, quality, and safety. Industrial engineers help an organization produce a product or service with the least use of resources, to a high level of quality, while keeping people safe. Industrial engineers are the engineers who care the most about the people in the system.

The bumper sticker version is: Industrial engineers make things better.

I think a key word is “systems.” If you could see me, I start waving my hands when I use that word. Industrial engineers may focus on what they have determined is the root cause of a problem (that weld just isn’t being done right), but they achieve that focus by looking at the larger system and they generate, evaluate, and implement a change only after considering its effects on the system, including always and crucially the human beings in the system. Workers work in the system; industrial engineers work on the system.

In 2005 and 2015, I wrote two articles reviewing the content of industrial engineering programs in the US (about 100 such programs), and the Purdue program is typical, with foundational courses in the sciences (especially physics), and math (through differential equations, linear algebra, and probability and statistics), and other branches of engineering (electrical engineering, mechanics,  thermodynamics, and computing). Most industrial engineering programs include a core of courses on work methods, operations research, simulation, manufacturing processes, production systems, and engineering economy. As with all engineering students, they also complete courses in English, humanities, the arts, and social sciences. All engineering programs require students to work in a team to complete a senior design project. The Purdue catalog states about the senior projects: “Teams have taken on full-scale projects like designing floor layouts for factories and hospitals, designing operations to improve system efficiency, reducing time and waste in processing, allocating resources to optimize system performance, and developing a safety plan for preventing work-related injuries.”

In all industrial engineering programs, such courses will help students learn about lean manufacturing, six sigma, root cause analysis, optimization, simulation, ergonomics, safety, project management, facilities layout, supply chains, and information systems.

I love being an industrial engineer. One of the founding fathers of industrial engineering was a founding mother, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and I was the first female industrial engineering professor at Purdue University after Dr Gilbreth.

What does it mean for you?

Industrial (yes, that is a clunky word) engineers work for large, industrial manufacturers, but also for hospitals, insurance companies, financial institutions, logistics companies, retail companies, and non profits. The Disney parks,  McKinsey & Company, Allstate, and Victoria’s Secret  hire industrial engineers.

More and more organizations are realizing the value that industrial engineers bring and the job outlook is excellent: “Employment of industrial engineers is projected to grow 10 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The goal of industrial engineering is continuous improvement. I like to say “If it ain’t broke, it can still be improved.”  I also tell students: being an industrial engineer means you are always unhappy because something always needs to be improved. When I saw the article in Production Machining about Ms Morgan, especially her colleague’s statement about the difference she had made in a short time, I bet myself that she had an industrial engineering degree – and I was right.

The message is: whatever product or service your organization produces, an industrial engineer can help you do it better.

Where can you learn more?

The Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineering (IISE) is the lead professional organization in the field. The Body of Knowledge for industrial engineers is outlined on their page here. Their page on What Industrial & Systems Engineers Do is also helpful. I’ve written an introduction to industrial engineering for undergraduate students. Hire a graduate of one of the ABET accredited programs in industrial engineering.

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