Engineering Value Creation

Before reading this, please see the post of December 7, 2017, where I have released a comprehensive guide for engineers, students and educators on value creation in engineering enterprises…..

In my last post, I wrote a brief explanation about value and value creation, noting that “value” has many different meanings.

In this post I will summarize what Bill Williams and I think is a new theory of engineering value creation, the subject of my address to the International Conference on Engineering Education Research (iCEER 2016) in Sydney on November 24.

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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 engineer? Why do we do engineering?

I posed this question to my students this morning. It was not an easy question for them to answer, and most were hesitant in offering answers: “Innovate?” “Solve problems?” “Satisfy society needs?” “Provide water, sanitation, basic needs?” To some I posed another question: “okay, but what’s the good of solving problems without implementing solutions?” No answer.

It is perverse, perhaps, that these same students had no difficulty telling me why doctors do medicine. “Save lives” “Heal sick people” “Help people live longer and healthier”.

Nor did they have any difficulty telling me why lawyers are valuable: “They get you out of trouble” “Provide justice, human rights”.

Why is it that young engineers find this question so difficult? The answer is simple. We don’t teach them the answers.

That’s not so easy either. The answers are not so easy to find because, I would argue, they have been forgotten. The real value of engineering only became apparent to me when I spent time helping people in the back streets of South Asian megacities like Lahore, and only because good engineering is conspicuously absent. Electricity is usually only on half the time or less, and the water comes out of the pipes every other day or so for an hour or two. Even then it’s almost certainly unsafe to drink.

In the course of writing my book, I found some explanations. Now, with the book finished, I think I can explain it even more clearly than I did in the book itself.

PS (June 2016) I have been researching the philosophical foundations of these ideas and found there is much more to this that one might think.  I have started a new series of posts which explore these ideas, step by step.  Part of that is explaining what we mean by value creation, and proposing a coherent theory on how engineers create value. The full theory justification will be published in a forthcoming edited book on “The Engineering Business Nexus“.  Write if you want a preview. Continue reading