This article was written by Ryan Nabozniak, an application consulting engineer at Aucotec.
It’s engineering’s dirty little secret…the thing no one wants to talk about…you know what I mean. The fact that mistakes happen. All the time.
But that’s not the problem.
The problem is how we deal with those mistakes, which often takes the form of denying they exist. If they do come to light, because of a disaster, for example, often the response is for the people involved in a project start pointing fingers.
No individual or firm wants to be held responsible for a mistake. Admitting wrongdoing would destroy the firm’s reputation and open it up to legal ramifications. So, many organizations choose to bury their heads in the sand.
The consequences of this behavior can be disastrous. When you’re talking about constructing manufacturing facilities or spaceships or pipelines, mistakes don’t just mean a company loses money. Mistakes mean people lose their lives.
In this article, I’ll look at why mistakes happen, the consequences of those mistakes, and how they can be prevented.
Why mistakes happen in engineering projects
Obviously, mistakes happen in every industry.
The mistakes I’m talking about here aren’t ones like someone entering a wrong number into a formula, writing down the wrong voltage, or forgetting to update the title block after making a change to a drawing. These things happen — people are human, and humans aren’t perfect (even engineers, with their much-higher-than-average IQs).
What I’m talking about is a system in which mistakes like this get passed along the line so that they eventually end up in the finished project. At this point, a title block update might not have major consequences. But wrong numbers certainly can.
That’s exactly what happened with the Mars Climate Orbiter. The engineering teams working on the project were using different units. No one noticed, and the teams didn’t communicate. As a result, the trajectory was calculated incorrectly, and the spacecraft was lost.
Mistakes like this occur because engineering organizations are siloed and people in different disciplines don’t communicate with one another.
I’ve been in this business 21 years. I started out drafting and designing drawings. I’ve seen firsthand how mistakes can snowball to the point of no return.
Take, for example, a civil engineering project. There are often a lot of mistakes made early in the process, as the details are being worked out and designers experiment with different approaches. Other disciplines may see the mistakes, but they have no way to communicate them, so they work around them (which often introduces more mistakes). At the end of the process, the electrical engineers are following plans that are wrong. When an electrical problem occurs, the situation quickly devolves into a barrage of finger-pointing.
As NASA noted after the Mars Climate Orbiter disaster, the problem wasn’t the mistakes themselves.
The problem was the system.
In a previous job, I worked on a project where I was responsible for aggregating data across several disciplines and several tools. I discovered a 30% error rate in one discipline alone. Imagine if this was true across all disciplines. The errors could be catastrophic. And because of how the system works, they would also be invisible.
Somehow we’ve created an engineering system where we just push paper from one discipline to the next. There’s no collaboration, no communication, no teamwork. No one has an eye on the bigger picture. And no one wants to admit there’s a problem.
The consequences of engineering mistakes
What sets engineering apart from many other industries is the sheer magnitude of the consequences when things go wrong, as we saw in the 1981 Hyatt Regency disaster.
Engineers may sit in their offices, designing projects on their computers. But those designs will eventually be implemented, and if there’s a problem, we aren’t talking just project delays and lost revenue — though those are real consequences. We’re talking injuries. We’re talking loss of life.
As engineers, we’re responsible for the lives of other people, and that’s not a responsibility we can take lightly. Remember the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Conduct:
“Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.”
Let’s not forget this.
How to prevent these mistakes from happening
The way I see it, this problem has two main roots, so it needs to be addressed from two directions.
Engineering culture needs to shift toward better teamwork and more communication
Engineering organizations need to stop existing in silos. They need to encourage communication and collaboration among individuals and teams. Organizations need project leads to take responsibility for the entire project, rather than just their small piece of it.
We need to remember that we’re all on the same team, and the best outcome will be the result of everyone working together.
Engineering tools need to provide a big picture view of a project
Part of the reason silos exist is that every discipline uses its own tools, and these tools don’t integrate very well with one another.
But there are better tools available, ones that span an entire project, enabling collaboration across teams and disciplines.
Obviously, I recommend Engineering Base, which is an amazingly powerful platform that brings engineering teams together and also looks for inconsistencies and other problems in the data that human eyes don’t always see.
If you’d like to learn more, check out How Connecting Engineering Processes Creates Synergy Among Disciplines.