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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 3/13/2003

This is your bi-weekly e-Newsletter from Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.


Move the Rocks and People Travel Faster
  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

The last time I was working on a project as an individual contributor (yeah, OK, it was some time ago), my assignment was to design and develop some hardware and firmware for a project with a critical delivery date.  The development effort was challenging, but doable, as long as I could concentrate on getting it done.  In addition to the development effort itself, I also had to submit a weekly status report. This was reasonable, since I was the one who primarily knew what I was working on, and it really didn’t take much time.  However, in addition, I was also assigned tasks such as writing a white paper on a previous product we had developed for publication in an internal technical journal, mentoring a young engineer, conducting an inventory of equipment, soliciting people to contribute to the United Way campaign going on, interviewing a lot of job candidates (yes, we were actually hiring at that time), organizing a luncheon for a friend who was leaving, and many other non-project related tasks.  At the proper points in time, all of these many ancillary tasks were probably reasonable and worthwhile, and would help to broaden my base of experience and my general knowledge of the business.  However, when these tasks were expected to be done during a period of intense development activity to get a project done quickly and well, they turned what was a challenging but achievable development effort into an all-out long-nights-and-weekends effort to get the project completed on time.  These ancillary efforts, at that time, squeezed the joy out of the job and made my life a living nightmare.  Of course, at the time, my reaction was that of a good soldier saying, “Thank you sir, may I have another!”, but the reality was that I was drowning, and needed help, and that I refused to admit it.  The project got done (barely), and the quality was fairly good (although I really would have liked more time to test and verify), but this is not the way complete a project or to live your life.  My personal and family life suffered badly.  I certainly did not view this as a time where I was being nurtured and helped to grow in my career.  Instead it seemed to be a case of dumping as much stuff on me as was humanly possible, and then adding more stuff on top of that.  Unfortunately, this was not a one-time exceptional period of my career, but all too often became a continuing way of life, as is often the case for many engineers.

It is simply amazing how much progress can be made when the obstacles that impede or block progress are eliminated or significantly reduced.  When people can spend their time actually doing their jobs, rather than being mired in “administrivia”, they are far happier and far more effective.  Yet far too often, people find their path strewn with “rocks” of varying sizes that delay them, divert their attention, sidetrack them, or overtake them, and the consequences can be devastating.  Moving these “rocks” out of the way is one of the most critical roles of management, but unfortunately one that management often does not step up to.  It is often too easy for managers to look at all the work on their plate and “delegate” some of the tasks to others.  When they delegate the right tasks that make the project proceed most effectively, this is admirable and the proper thing to do.  But when they delegate tasks that take away from effective progress by placing unnecessary burdens on their employees, they are sabotaging the very projects they have been charged with completing.  It is imperative for managers to themselves handle the tasks that can simply mire people down, or to utilize the efforts of people dedicated to simplifying the work of others, and who are not involved with the detailed development efforts.

How much of engineers’ time is wasted on tasks that are mundane, or trivial, or non-technical?  In today’s “streamlined” organizations, the number of support staff (clerks, administrative assistants, executive assistants, etc.) is often reduced to a minimum.  The number of administrative tasks isn’t reduced, just who does them.  So instead of having a clerk earning $25K per year doing these tasks, it now falls on engineers earning $75K and more per year to do these same tasks.  And, while the engineers are doing this “administrivia”, they aren’t doing their technical development jobs.  What a great way to “save” money!  Organizations need to wake up and find ways to move the “rocks” out of engineers’ (and others) ways.  If they do this, they can watch the engineers’ morale soar, along with their respect for management!

With all of the downsizing going on these days, an unfair burden is often placed on the survivors.  Rather than cutting back on what will be done after the number of people are reduced, managers often place all of the technical tasks of those who are now gone onto those who remain.  Their already full plates of tasks now become overflowing, and the results are typically overwork, poor quality, and poor morale.  To further compound the problem, a lot of non-technical “administrivia” also gets piled on as well.  This is grossly unfair, and the results are not a reflection of the capabilities of the survivors, but of the incompetence of the managers who do this.

As stated in an earlier e-Newsletter, “Ineffective Engineering Costs You Time, Money, and Customers!” (see eN-021107), the sources of ineffective engineering are many.  To be effective, you have to be productive.  To be productive, you have to be able to concentrate on doing your job and not be distracted by many unrelated tasks (technical and non-technical) that just take away from being able to do your job.  These are the “rocks” that are in your way.  Engineers need to do their part by making management aware of the “rocks” in their path.  Management must then start by removing the “boulders”, then the large “rocks”, and finally the “pebbles”.  This won’t solve all of the problems that cause ineffective engineering, but it will certainly help!

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