How a company should approach conflicting targets in a business case

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Should engineering and product be business driven, or should a business be product and engineering driven? Regular ATTI columnist, Gene Lukianov, ponders.

As engineers, we are tasked with the design, development, testing and manufacture of products suitable for customer use. The breadth of products we engineer encompasses everything in the material world, from raw materials extraction to the most complex mechanisms. 

We have all been victims of buying a product for occasional use, only to have it fail as we are using it for the first time. What happened? Was the product designed with good intentions, but the engineers really did not know what they should have known? Or, is it an intentionally minimized product where low cost and a false front of quality produced a high profit margin for the business and a poor product? Such a business model will be challenged to provide a moral justification for the minimized product for maximum gain.

Human nature is not infallible, no matter how much we try to be perfect; we make mistakes both as individuals and collectively. An organization working toward a common noble goal will still have surprising instances of errors scattered throughout the project. I personally have reviewed many design and manufacturing operations only to find unexpected issues in the operation and documentation that made me wonder: ‘How do we ever build this thing successfully?’

As the complexity of mechanical devices increases with software, electronics and higher stressed parts, we can expect to encounter new and different problems than in the past. No question, we have improved safety over time, whether it is automotive transportation, flight or oceanic transport. We might, however, be getting to a point where the complexity of the engineering and products is starting to overwhelm human capability to operate the machine properly in all situations. We have Navy ships colliding because the crew did not know how to steer the ship properly. We have airplanes of questionable engineering losing control and crashing, resulting in extensive fatalities. We have vehicle autopilots getting confused and resulting in collisions.

Are we seeing a collision of factors that can sometimes result in a disaster? Business decisions to maximize profit or competitive advantage instead of designing and building well-thought-out product? Overwhelming complexity in products where the operation of the machine is no longer logical or intuitive to an operator or where the key operations are buried deep in some sequence of tasks? Unexpected, hidden faults which become apparent at some highly inopportune time? 

We need to design and manufacture products responsibly, keeping in mind performance, safety, environmental degradation, human impact and costs. A business that is product and engineering driven will tend to self-reflect and work to minimize its faults and mistakes. Over time, it will tend to improve its operations.

A business that puts financial interests first, using product as a means to an end, will tend to minimize inconspicuous product content for financial gain. It will tend to cut corners throughout the operation, sacrificing performance, quality and ultimately customer satisfaction. Most compromises cannot have a value impact calculated regardless of management’s desires.

Management will always tend to put greater focus on financials than other considerations. Corporate policy initiatives regarding quality and responsibility need to be vigorously emphasized within an organization so that they receive as much attention as financial considerations. Once quality and responsibility is compromised, it is very difficult to recover the culture.

A business environment that puts profit and stockholder value above everything else will naturally make decisions biased against customer and society interests. We need to advocate and operate within a responsible business environment.

by Gene Lukianov

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