Another reason for engineering project failures

This series of posts all has to do with the ways that engineering is critical for our economy, no matter whether you are in an advanced industrial country like Australia, or a developing and low-income country like Bangladesh.  Unfortunately, that link is hardly ever mentioned in engineering schools, let alone understood.

Also in earlier posts I mentioned our appalling and worsening record in completing major engineering projects, and how that is affecting the world’s economy right now, discouraging investors.  Why would anyone want to invest their money with engineers when there’s a good chance of losing all of it, and not much chance of making money?

In this post, I am going to advance another possible reason large projects can fail.  This time the root cause stems from engineering education.

In your first year of engineering, you probably learned about stress and strain. Even if you became an electrical engineer.  Maybe if you’re software engineer you missed out on the fun of playing with elastic beams and springs, noticing how they stretch in proportion to the applied load.

It’s fundamental knowledge for mechanical and civil engineers, and valuable for others.  In most engineering schools, you won’t graduate without having passed an exam on it.

Now, what would be the result if engineers had to pick up that knowledge on the job? Continue reading

Why an engineering project can fail (1)

In this series of posts, I am going to show how engineering underpins the world economy more than we think, and how we can improve our engineering performances by changing the way we think about engineering.  The last post was bad news for us engineers.  The good news is that we can all gain by improving our engineering performances.  However, to turn our performance around, we first need to understand what’s not working.

Companies like IPA Global have answers based on statistical analysis, and have provided these answers for several years.  They will tell you which factors are statistically correlated with successful projects, as Ed Merrow has written in his book.  However, even the projects they interact with are getting worse, and there are many more projects that they don’t assess, such as government engineering projects.  Political constraints with these projects usually rule out closing down a failing project: unemployment is often a bigger issue than a failed project for government sponsors.

Clearly there are other factors at work here.  The fundamental difficulty with statistical correlations is that they cannot provide causes.  Try this example.  My hair grows every day and Halley’s comet is moving further from the sun every day.  But that does not mean that my hair will get shorter when Halley’s comet comes back towards the sun.  Statistical correlations can tell you which factors are correlated with project outcomes, but these associations cannot tell us much about the causes of project failures or how to make improvements.

We have to turn to different kinds of research to find the underlying causes for engineering project failures.  The qualitative ethnographic research we do with engineers can help identify potential causes that statistical correlations miss.

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Why Are Investors Not Listening to Engineers?

Mineral processing refinery - summary of Ravensthorpe Nickel Refinery: Conceived 2004 for AUD 1.4 billion, Cost till 2008 Au $2.6 billion, Sold to First Quantum for AUD $250 million, AUD 2.4 billion in value destroyed

Photo: Mineral processing plant  (This is not a photograph of the Ravensthorpe Plant – image by Shutterstock)

In the first post in this series I explained just how significant engineering is in today’s sluggish world economy, both in the developed world and developing world.  In this post I will explain why investors are so reluctant to back engineering ventures.

Engineering performances are slipping, engineers are frustrated, business owners are even more frustrated and billions of people languish in misery because of engineering performance failures.  These are not spectacular failures like Fukushima or Deepwater Horizon.  Instead they are silent failures that have remained mostly out of sight, in many cases deliberately hidden by their owners.

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It’s The Engineering…..

Its-The-Engineering“It’s the economy, stupid!” was the line that secured Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992 against sitting president George W Bush.  Now, with economies struggling to grow it’s time to recognise that it’s engineering that drives the world economy, and we engineers have to recognise how we can play our part and get paid better at the same some.  Our performance can, indeed has to improve. Continue reading

Sales pass 1500 copies

I recently received first sales report from Taylor and Francis for the book.  Over 1500 copies sold.  Thank you so much all those of you who bought copies.  I hope you have enjoyed reading the book and found it useful.  Lots of people have given me verbal feedback, all of it extremely complimentary.  Some have sent nice written reviews that you can read here.

Time to Share the Load and that Empty Car Seat

An edited version of this piece appeared in The West Australian, Opinion Section, Thursday May 26, 2016.  It has been written for a Perth audience.

Once again, politicians are seducing us with money to fix transport in Perth, and it’s our money of course.  Yet both main parties are still offering solutions from the last century: more roads and railways.

Self-driving cars will soon be here. They will bring disruptive changes in urban transport, possibly within a decade, sooner than a Metronet or Freight Link could be completed.

Public transport is expensive and infrequent in Perth and needs large government subsidies because we have such a low population density.  According to a 2011 report, 30% of people in Sydney live in densities of 44 persons/ha or more – compared 12% in Melbourne, 5% in Brisbane, and less than 2% in Perth.

That’s we use cars.  As a consequence, Perth freeways and main roads are clogged every day with hundreds of thousands of slow-moving empty seats.  What a waste of expensive roads and cars and valuable time!

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Lost in Urdu translation?

Today with the internet and web sites like, you would think it is possible to find native speakers of any language who can readily do translation for you and prepare documents like instruction manuals.  And with computer packages like InDesign, you would think that the job of setting up a professionally printed instruction booklet again would be trivially easy.  Well, maybe in some languages, but not in Urdu.  This has been a fascinating learning experience, and frustrating too at times.

I never imagined that translating our air conditioner user manual and getting it designed ready for printing would have been so difficult.  This manual is critical for us: few people will read it, but the few who do will pass on that knowhow to lots of other people.  It’s really important that they get it right.

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Why graduates have poor business skills – part 3

On repeated occasions, surveys in Australia and elsewhere report business leaders complaining about graduates without appropriate skills.  Most recently, Dr Simon Eassom has proclaimed this in an article ‘What will the Uber university look like?’ in the Australian Campus Review newspaper.  He thinks that traditional universities could be swept aside just like Uber is transforming the taxi industry in many countries using new technology.

Recently I wrote about two factors that could explain this: the implicit privileging of writing about all other forms of communication and implicit relegation of collaboration throughout our education system. Graduates, therefore, tend to have weak skills in listening, seeing and reading, even drawing and visual communication, all of which are critical for engineering and most other professions.  Especially for engineers, it is unlikely that they know how to collaborate effectively since this is rarely if ever taught. Even though students practice teamwork in many group projects, in the absence of explicit teaching and assessment, bad team behaviours will be reinforced just as much as good ones. And teamwork is different from effective collaboration in a technical context such as engineering.

In our research, we observed that young engineers rarely practiced effective collaboration techniques.  Some older engineers developed remarkably effective skills but without being able to explain them.

This helps to explain why the reputation of graduates is so low, particularly in the minds of business employers. And it is not just engineers, apparently, that are said to have terrible communication and collaboration skills.

My research on engineers provides some novel answers that lie deep within the structure of our education systems. There are some other factors that have emerged from this research affecting not just engineers, but all graduates.

In this post I will describe the third of these factors: the implicit devaluation of ideas about money in universities.

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Power Storage Costs in Pakistan – Part 1

For readers in many countries, it may come as a surprise to learn how much of the world experiences grid electricity supplies. Those starry night-time maps of the world showing all those brightly lit mega-cities and villages across the less developed world are quite misleading. At no time would all those places be lit up. Particularly in rural areas, darkness is more prevalent.


(Click for full resolution image at

That’s because in much of Africa, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and several other countries, electricity supplies cannot meet the demand. Power utilities have to impose “load shedding” in a regular or irregular rotating schedule, cutting off power in less politically influential districts to keep demand within supply limits.

In Pakistan, people living in rural communities are hardest hit with only 6-8 hours power daily – they make up about 70% of the population. That’s because governments know that city voters know they can vote out a government: rural voters are more compliant (but are becoming less so).

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Lahore Book Launch

“The Making of an Expert Engineer” was officially launched in Lahore at the Avari Hotel on March 3rd before a gathering of 120 engineers, engineering faculty, aspiring engineers, and friends.  Prof. Fazal Ahmad Khalid, Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Engineering and Technology (UET) presided at the launch.  The launch was sponsored by the author’s company Close Comfort.


James Trevelyan demonstrating the Close Comfort bed tent with air conditioner.

Audio Recording:

Selection of photographs taken at the event


James Trevelyan speaking about the book


Prof Fazal Ahmad Khalid

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