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Author: Frederick "Ken" Sexe
I recently had an experience with a computer peripheral manufacturer that reminded me of how engineering perceptions affect customer satisfaction. I decided to return a computer peripheral to the manufacturer as it was not compatible with my operating system, something I learned only after plugging it into my computer. The manufacturer had a self-stated “no questions asked” return policy. I called their help line whereupon I was asked why I was returning it. I gave them the reason and my email address and personal details whereupon I was told that I would get an email with the means to ship the item back for a refund. What I got instead was an email stating that since the item was being returned due to an incompatibility issue and not due to a defect I was not entitled to a refund. The email also stated that the compatible operating systems was listed on the website therefore they were not at fault (a check of their website found the operating systems listed as a link to a separate page itself).
In all fairness I confess that I am partially to blame for not understanding the operating system requirements (even though I have bought numerous peripherals for operating systems that are not stated and which work perfectly fine) but the manner in which this was dealt with gave me the impression that the organization was looking for a reason not to give me a refund. I had one organization I purchase accessories from who actually sent me a replacement item after I damaged it due to my own actions. Organizations have flexibility in how they view their policies and as an extension their relationship with their customers and interactions such as these highlight how the organizations themselves are designed to address customer needs.
A tendency in engineering design is to identify a particular set of specifications and then build to that while ignoring all else. Any inconsistencies that do not fit within the specifications result in rejection of the part (if it is a part of their design) or as a means to defend themselves against customers requiring something outside of identified specifications (or as a means to charge them for something outside of the specifications). This is especially true in the defense industry where strict specifications are flowed to engineering from the customer, usually someone far removed from the individual that actually has to use the system.
The problem with this approach is that it poses a risk of providing products or services that customers actually do not want. This was true of the American automakers in past decades that designed vehicles that nobody wanted. Deming would say that one could build a product with the highest quality yet still go out of business if the product is not what the customer wants. The opposite is also true; one can have the best product design possible yet still go out of business if the organization cannot manufacture it efficiently. Organizations that operate by upholding strict specifications send a message to customers that they know their needs more than they do.
The answer to this dilemma is complex and unfortunately outside of the scope of a blog but can be found through quality philosophies such as Deming and Theory of Constraints that aid organizations in improving how to understand a customer’s needs and then delivering it as quickly as possible while maintaining a level of flexibility to learn from evolving customer needs. Organizational culture must also be addressed by developing policies encouraging open relationships with customers. A flexible engineering strategy, although more costly in the planning stages, can provide increased profitability through longer-term relationships with customers providing both improved product design and potential for new product design discovered through interactions with the customer.
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Frederick (Ken) Sexe is a lifelong learner currently wrapping up his PhD in Engineering Management and Organizational Psychology at Northcentral University. His hobbies include challenging prevailing patterns of thinking that discourage new ideas while developing new ways to do things. He is currently employed as a Senior Systems Engineer at Raytheon where he is taking a career break from management to pursue his educational goals and focus on his family.
A recent conversation with some colleagues reminded me of how mentoring can begin with good intentions yet fail to provide the desired results. One scenario in particular is where an individual is assigned a mentor by a manager to learn skills they are either deficient in or have not been exposed to. The individual being mentored in this scenario goes through mentoring with the mentor only for the manager to find out that the individual has not (or cannot) learned the skills required. In extreme situations this goes unnoticed until the individual that was mentored (I will call them a mentee for lack of a better word) is placed in a position where their deficiency becomes apparent. This occurs most often in my experience when “high potential” individuals are identified for management but fail to learn the skills required to be an effective manager.
A key part of mentoring that is readily agreed is identifying exactly what the mentee requires mentoring in. This is not, in my opinion, a steadfast list but instead is a starting point to focus the mentoring and to identify with the mentor what the individual being mentored (mentee?) is expected to learn. This list can be modified as required but generally at the agreement of (at a minimum) the mentor and the mentee, especially once a relationship has been built between the two and the mentor understands the capability and motivations of the mentee. What is missing in many cases of mentoring is a “closed loop” between the mentor, mentee, and the person the mentee reports to so that the manager understands progress and (which in my opinion is more important) the motivations and desires of the mentee itself. This closed loop approach allows the manager to shift career emphasis away from what the manager expects (and sometimes needs) towards one that takes into consideration the mentee’s desired and most capable career path (this is not to say that career paths are static; much like learning paths a career path can seem random at times, especially early in one’s career as the individual learns what they want to do). One of the greatest harms I have seen to an individual’s career is being placed in a position that does not suit either their skill set or internal motivations, which can lead to long-term negative consequences for not only the mentee but the team and organization as a whole.
Including all stakeholders into a mentoring plan periodically allows everyone to make effective decisions. Closed loop feedback allows the manager to better understand the mentee and guide them towards career moves that best fit their intrinsic motivations. Mentees benefit by identifying their strengths and weaknesses and steering future opportunities towards these strengths. Mentors benefit also by focusing their precious time and energy towards mentoring that benefits all parties.
On a closing note, I have found that there is some confusion regarding differences between coaching and mentoring. Coaching and mentoring differ such that coaching is directed by an outside party (i.e. a manager requiring employees to learn certain skills) whereas mentoring is directed by the mentee. Because of this distinction it is important that mentors are responsible for their own mentoring. Without this responsibility the mentee will potentially lack the intrinsic desire to pursue learning.Image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/road-sign-town-sign-training-skills-798175/
Author: Gene Dixon, ASEM President
July 2015 Pres. Release
It’s hot in the Southeastern US. Probably hot where you are too, if you’re north of the equator. Ted said it was dry in Alaska. It can be hot there, too. For those in the southern part of the world, I trust it is not too cold. Seasons change. We change, you and I. ASEM changes too.
We’re growing is some areas. We’re falling back in some areas. We can see that when the metrics tell us we’re falling back in some areas. We know when it is time to grow when demographics change or new missions evolve. Then it is time for new objectives, new strategies. That takes thinking, planning and work (my favorite four letter word, a phrase recently coopted by a major industrial supplier).
When undertaking strategic planning for ASEM it is important to consider our constituents. I’ve been thinking about constituents lately. ASEM members. Practitioners – engineering managers. Aspiring engineering managers. Students. Researchers. Your organization(s). Your employer(s). Universities. Suppliers. What is it that should be considered in an updated ASEM strategic plan that is important to that constituency? What is important to you?
The ASEM Executive Committee is starting to consider a new strategic plan. We haven’t updated the current plan in a few years. It is time to review and renew. What would you suggest be considered?
With strategic plans comes tactical execution and operational level actions leading to mission completion. These represent opportunities for every part of the ASEM constituency to invest in the Society. Will you?
Just an aside. I was talking to Angie at ASEM HQ yesterday. She’s all fresh and back from holiday. Angie’s impressive to listen to. Her first words to me were, “It’s great to be back home.” And then she talked about ASEM and the people that make it work. She told me about the wonderful experiences she has had working with each of you. The different personalities. The challenges of moving headquarters. And the transition seems to be coming to an end. And then she talked again about the great experiences she’s had working with ASEM members. That would be great to capture in a strategic plan somehow. I think she is great to work with too. Give her a call. Tell her thank you. See if her infectious enthusiasm for ASEM rubs off on you. And, please don’t let on that I asked you to do that.
And, really, I do want to hear your thoughts about ASEM. The mission. The vision. The strategic focus of this member driven, member-operated society that speaks for engineering management around the world. Is it growth? Is it value? Is it retention? Is it 2500 members? Is it 5000 members? Is it 100,000 members around the world? Is it solid research with a focus on practitioner application? Is it practitioner experiences that drive research? What is important as we think about ASEM’s role halfway through this decade and planning for the next? What do you think we should be planning to make ASEM standout as service to the engineering management profession?
While you’re at it, why not ask someone to join ASEM today?
I’ll see you in Indy!
2015 ASEM President
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I had an interesting conversation with a pair of engineering managers a few days ago. It was our task to come up with ideas for future group meetings and other ways to bring people together. We were chatting over coffee and brainstorming about what topics would appeal and engage other engineering managers. The discussion went on for nearly an hour and we came back to two notions (among the many we postulated) over and over.
We felt strongly, based on our own observations and feedback, that there is a need for newer engineering managers to find mentors or guides to assist in making a successful transition to management. While it's true that some of us have the benefit of educational or training tools to help us get the work done, that isn't always enough when you're wondering how well you're doing. Or when you encounter a challenge that isn't so "textbook" in nature. Or when you're considering if engineering management is even the best path for you.
Someone with experience in the field can lend ideas, validate our feelings and help us consider alternative methods. As the proverb states, there is no substitute for experience. The people that we talked to in earlier sessions repeatedly expressed a desire to meet experienced engineering managers. Admittedly, while it is fortunate to have a clear interest expressed, we were at a loss when we tried to identify these individuals. Our list of names was pretty thin; what to do?
As for the second concept, we each agreed that networking was a high priority as well. Here in the Twin Cities, the job market is big enough to move around, but not so big that you won't bump into familiar faces. Many opportunities are announced via word of mouth, so having a good network is vital to keep on top of the changes. Of course, LinkedIn and other social media outlets are great tools to use, but you still have to find these people in order to network with them.
You can see where our ideas were not mutually exclusive. In fact, we were excited to think that we could effectively tackle the second item by working on the first. And while that may seem effective and efficient, it is by no means a small or easy task ahead of us. We each agreed to turn to our own networks and try to find the people to help us address both needs. For me specifically, that means reaching out to some of my fellow cohort students and maybe even some of my professors in an effort to identify experienced engineering managers in our area. I’m happy to keep in touch with these people and see what suggestions they have to offer.
Ask yourself, as someone active or interested in engineering management, what do you want? Do your needs align with what our conversation uncovered? If so, how would you propose to locate and tap into these experienced resources? If not, what would you add to the list of needs? I look forward to seeing your comments and feedback here or at any of the ASEM social media sites. After all, would you be reading this if you weren't looking for something?
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Author: Frederick (Ken) Sexe
As engineers we deal with specifications every day. As a result most of our efforts are focused on meeting specifications as a means to meet customer requirements. Yet there is one other set of limits that are just as important as specification limits but for different reasons.
Taiichi Ohno defined these succinctly: he defined process limits as “the voice of the customer” and control limits as “the voice of the process”. Specifications are derived through actions taken to identify and quantify customer needs and apply them to the design. Control limits can only be defined through statistical process control methods that identify how the process accomplishes its intended purpose. This distinction is important as they both provide different information and are defined in different ways.
It sometimes occurs that specification limits are treated the same as control limits and vice versa. This assumption is dangerous as it assumes that the customer requirements are identical to process performance. It can also give a false comfort by providing a false impression that as long as the process operates within customer requirements that it is under statistical control. A process can operate within control limits yet not fulfill specification limits and vice versa; this distinction is crucial because the actions taken to improve the system are different for each scenario. Taking the wrong action based on a flawed assumption can cause more harm to the performance of the process than before while masking other problems influencing the process overall.
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I've said this and tried to live this in my work. A bit of background: I work in IT Quality Assurance. I have a strong sense of best practices and repeatable process. That said, I enjoy change (well, as long as it's not my paycheck, password or daily routine) and I try to be that change advocate. After all, only through change do you achieve progress!
So here you are, reading an ASEM blog; what can you do to be a part of the change? It really depends on your level of involvement.
Maybe you will attend a webinar or join the LinkedIn group. But wait, there's more! How about sharing a post at LinkedIn? Or maybe commenting on a post at Facebook?
Yes, I'm simply scratching the surface here. I know there are people - the movers and shakers - that have even bigger ideas.
For a really big splash, how about volunteering? You can step up and participate in how ASEM is structured and goes forward. The committees of ASEM always have another place at the table for new thoughts and ideas. I realize that it may seem like things are slowing in the summer months, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are always activities that need input and enthusiasm!
Think it over; are your ideas running wild? I hope so. There are a lot ways to get involved. I hope that you do, because I want to hear your ideas for change.
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Tricia Simo Kush is a certified Professional Engineering Manager with a background in Information Technology and a goal to take her career to a higher level through Engineering Management. She graduated from the Master of Engineering Management program at St. Cloud State University in 2010. To her, Engineering Management is a fascinating mix of technology and business, people and process. She is constantly seeing the ways that Engineering Management spans many industries and helps everyone to become effective leaders. Follow her on Twitter (@TSimoKush) or check out her profile on LinkedIn.
June 2015 Pres. Release
Here I am. Sitting in another hotel room. Its 5:00 AM and the sun is reflecting on the e-glass of a nearby high rise like a thousand mirrors showing the skyline of buildings in a revers image. Just like they are now. Like they were yesterday. And if the fault zones cooperate, like they will be tomorrow.
When I’m looking at mirrored windows, it seems I’m always trying to pick out details. What features do I recognize? Was I near there yesterday? Should I go there today? Recognition is an interesting phenomenon.
ASEM thrives on recognition, I believe. We should look into the mirror reflecting our society and try to recognize where the contributions are being made. Who is making a difference?
I believe every member is making a difference. And it is every member who offers that reflection of service that makes ASEM grow, and brings value to all members of ASEM. It is every member who helps us retain our members. Thank you. Each of you.
Metrics are like reflections in a mirror. Recognition of members is a form of metrics. We need something to show us—remind us—of where we’ve come from and how we are doing. Metrics show us if we are on the right track. Going the right way. Growing or falling behind. Do we reflect on newer members stepping up to random acts of leadership? In practice. In research. In learning.
What are the important metrics for ASEM for you? Maybe it is some measure of growth? Or value? Or retention?
A growing society is a living society that provides value to new and retained members. What growth metric reflects a vibrant ASEM? Could it be 250 additional members between now and the 2015 IAC? Maybe 2020 in 2020 to adapt a thought from EMJ Editor Toni Doolen. Or more. If we each ask someone to join us, we could. We should.
For value, increased IAC attendance and EMBoK or Handbook visibility means we have products that students and professionals value. Get it? Got it? Then use it; sell it.
For retention, steady renewal of your membership. And mine.
Metrics are the mirror that let us recognize growth, value, retention. Metrics let us know how well our practice of EM informs EM research and how EM research informs the practice of EM (thanks for that feedback, Jesse Kamm).
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The King Gillette Company had a problem when they first introduced a truly disposable razor in the 1960s in that the disposable razors actually lasted as long (and in some cases longer) than more expensive razor types. A solution to this dilemma was to introduce a colored strip on the top of the blade casing as a means to signal when the blade required replacing. This allowed the company to increase consumption of the cheaper blades by encouraging replacement based on something other than the life of the blade itself.
There are several ways to increase consumption in a product. One way is to introduce a mechanism that signals a need for replacement at a particular time (an example being the “service engine” light signaling a need for servicing based on a certain number of miles or kilometers driven). A product can also be designed to last a certain amount of uses or time before requiring replacement (an auto manufacturer received bad press in the 1980s when it was discovered that the manufacturer designed automobiles to last a certain number of years before requiring replacement). Designing for consumption may provide short-term benefits but makes the organization vulnerable to perceived poor quality and competitors who may introduce products which may have the same or lower quality standards but a higher designed consumption level.
Designing for increased consumption also leaves an organization vulnerable to organizations that can use the tactic to either introduce a product with a longer life or advertise their products as higher quality. A manufacturer of printers made a conscious effort to increase consumption of their print cartridges by discontinuing older and larger cartridges and introducing smaller ones that printed fewer pages before requiring replacement. Their competitors responded in kind by advertising that their print cartridges actually lasted longer than theirs resulting in a poor perception by consumers that cost them loyal customers. In the case of the auto manufacturer that designed cars with a certain life expectance the organization earned the perception of having poor quality that allowed their competitors to take market share from them even though future models were shown to be of a higher quality.
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I have recently began re-reading Abraham Maslow's seminal work on management Maslow on Management (which I feel should be required reading for anyone aspiring to be a manager). One of my favorite parts is a section on self-esteem in the workforce in which he explains the effects of authoritarian management on employees. These effects on workplace morale is also summed up very eloquently by a friend and mentor of mine, Robert Dickman, in his video about the damaging effects of authoritarian management styles of team morale which is definitely worth viewing.
Authoritarian management works by placing significant power in the hands of an authoritarian (usually a manager) who then wields his positional power to ensure that those assigned to him pursue actions that meet the organization’s goals. The problem with authoritarian management, Maslow notes, is that the employee will counteract this power imbalance by acting "with hostility and vandalism" at its worst but typically in very subversive ways. Employees do this, Maslow also notes, because authoritarian management robs the worker of dignity and self-esteem and as such creates an imbalance the employee attempts to counter. These actions are initially very subtle (such as only doing what is assigned to them or neglecting tasks that are less visible but which have a significant impact on team performance) but eventually begin to erode team performance such that the authoritarian begins to wield his or her power even more (and thereby feeding a vicious cycle in which team morale is destroyed and the team becomes dysfunctional). The authoritarian manager begins to view these passive yet subversive actions with confusion, anger, and then frustration as the manager begins to think that the team is so dysfunctional that they need even more direct management from them to do their jobs. In cases where the manager micro-manages the team the manager suddenly finds themselves taking on more and more of the important tasks their subordinates are assigned as subordinates begin to do less and less.
This effect is especially damaging in teams requiring high collaboration such as engineering cross-functional teams where behavior within and between teams becomes competitive. Over time, as Robert Dickman succinctly notes, problems or opportunities seen by one team will stay hidden as each team is reluctant to bring up problems in a bid to avoid punishment. The team as a system will suddenly become suboptimized with tasks such as knowledge sharing minimized to only that which the team members are rewarded (or threatened) to do.
An unfortunate by-product of poor management is that employees begin to become risk adverse, using company policies and procedures to protect their actions. This behavior results in employees doing things only "by the book" as they feel that taking what is perceived as a risk exposes them to either further harassment or abuse by the manager or (even worse) being laid off. These employee actions can even result in behaviors that degrade the organization as their loyalty to the organization begins to shift. It is hard for many managers to understand that employees do not have the same stake in the organization as the manager and as such the employees actions will be seen by the manager in a confusing light, especially when the employee's action run counter to the needs of the organization. It is key to understand that it is not the manager's perception of his own management style that matters but how employees view the manager; this is especially true in teams that develop a shared understanding of the manager and subsequently the organization that is negative and corrosive.
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May 2015 Pres. Release
I’ll call this one, The Taming of the Skew. Yes, it’s a parody of one of Shakespeare’s plays made famous by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Last week I had the distinct pleasure of working with The US Navy’s Senior Leadership Development Program (SLDP). I was providing training for civilian leaders working in the Navy’s system of warfighter support. These SLDP participants are good, intelligent managers who know the Navy’s needs and know how to support the women and men on the front lines protecting freedoms. These are managers who want more tools to support their work for their country.
It was one of the better classes, I’ve had with the SLDP. This was a group who wanted to learn. They wanted to know how to better lead their organizations. The biggest gap for me; they were all IT. I don’t speak IT. I do however – with pride – speak engineering management. The behavioral side of EM.
As I worked with them for three days of training, the message continued to be that one approach is not universal. Context may dictate whether to think in terms of Situational Leadership, Ginnett’s Team Leadership Model, the concept of leader-follower-purpose or any one of the many tools we EM’ers have at our disposal. The message was also, practice. Keep trying. If team effectiveness is needed, if work place effectiveness is needed, if motivation is required, practice until you get it right. Dynamic leaders of all ilk need to practice their craft to provide the systems and structures needed to get the work done. In the end, it is all about people. Don Tippett taught me that many years ago. Thanks, Don.
The skew, when used properly, minimizes the need for sandpaper. Sandpaper is what you use to get rid of the rough edges. A smooth finish with the skew means less money for sandpaper and a quicker path to finishing.
And then the epiphany. EM has many tools of effectiveness and efficiency. EM is the mark of productivity tools for managing knowledge workers. Using our tools effectively is more than training. It takes practice. We sharpen our tools with research. We use our tools in practice. We improve ourselves as engineering managers when we listen, think and work with...our people. We improve with practice.
Like doctors “practicing” medicine. You and I, we practice engineering management. Something we do. Something we share at the IAC. Tools that we can teach to others. Tools we learn to demonstrate by being part of ASEM.
What tools do you use in practicing engineering management? What tools can you share at the 2015 ASEM IAC?
What tools would you like to learn? Chances are, in ASEM, someone is practicing what you need.
Today, I tamed the skew. Where can ASEM help you?
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