Mind Reading No Longer Required Coursework for Engineering Students

Let me read your mind! Think of a number between one and 1,000,000. Square your number. Now add the original number to it. Now divide your total by the original number. Now add… oh say, 17. Now subtract the original number. Now divide the total by six.

What you are left with is… Three! (yes, I’m in your head).

Ok, I can’t really read your mind. Sure, I can do number games and some fun card tricks and make you think I did, but truth is, I can’t. Extrapolate that to my engineering brethren and… well, neither can they. Now, let me tell you a story (at my own expense) about how my inability to read minds caused me some serious aggravation (with sales… who else?).

Back in the day I worked for a small HVAC firm. We had a project in New York City with a large, multi-facility hospital. We were there to assess the current condition of their 700+ HVAC units, develop a PM program for them and implement a new maintenance system for their staff. While this is not a product design story, the “challenge” translates.

We began by evaluating the current nomenclature use to identify the various HVAC units.  Since this was an information-based project, the nomenclature was our keystone. Their existing one was a combination of several older nomenclatures that had been smooshed together, resulting in series of meaningless numbers and letters. We decided to create a new nomenclature for the client, one that both provided useful information about the units and was expandable. Well, this made sense to us, it made sense to the technicians, it made sense to the managers… so with their approval, we moved forward using this nomenclature, the keystone of our project.

Here comes the breakdown. (See 4 Reasons to Keep Engineering in a Box)

Somewhere in this mix, no one talked with “the big boss,” an important customer to say the least, and one who I was completely unaware of (I told you, I can’t read minds). When we were ready to deliver the final product (and I met this new gentlemen) he said, “What happened to the old codes? I like those. I didn’t sign off on this nomenclature. Change it.”  At which point I gave the sales rep, who apparently had been talking with this gentleman throughout the process, a very dirty look.

Here are the facts: We designed the correct solution based on the parameters we were given. We designed a solution that was better for the users. BUT, we ended up designing a solution that did not address a preference of a key decision maker… because we were not made aware of it.

Every year there are dozens of high-profile product design failures. To avoid these types of problems, it is important to get customer feedback at all stages in the game. But customer feedback is useless to an organization if it doesn’t get back to the people who need to act upon it. And for designers, this feedback needs to flow into engineering before and during the process in order to have the most impact (remember, corrections made in the design process are significantly cheaper and more impactful than changes made during or after the production).

So it comes to this: Please hold up your right hand. “I hereby deputize you (you know who you are) as a member of the design team (yes, you in marketing, sales, operations, etc… YOU).” Engineering doesn’t design in a box, they design within parameters and you can help to establish those parameters. The customer feedback you provide can be invaluable in the design process. Companies need to stop thinking about design as an engineering function and start acknowledging that some things take a village… or in this case, a company.

And for my engineers in the audience? Do you have any disaster stories of your own?  Share it, we’d love to hear all about it!

Photo Credit: Gareth Simpson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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