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Paid To Think (Part II): The Engineering Method

A series of posts about the engineering method, Lean thinking, and complex adaptive systems.

In case you missed it, you can read the prior post here: Paid to Think (Part I): Everyone is a Scientist

Another aspect of my work that I’d like to explain to my son is that of an engineer (systems engineering and chemical engineering). Imagine trying to explain a subtle, abstract concept like engineering to a four-year-old. The job is a bit like a builder, which he understands, but not quite the same thing. Perhaps also part designer, part creator, and part scientist (as discussed in prior post).

As I continued watching the educational video with my son about an engineering team (Leapfrog Letter Factory Adventures: The Letter Machine Rescue Team), the team used a sequential set of steps to discover and solve problems. I was pleasantly surprised when they presented their own version of the Shewhart cycle (1), later popularized by Deming (2). This is my recreation of the cycle they described.

  • Explore: use direct observation to discover and understand problems first hand

  • Design: innovate and develop a plan to solve the problem

  • Build: execute the plan and build a countermeasure for the problem

  • Test: try out the countermeasure to see if it addresses the problem and improve if needed

  • Improve: reflect on how the countermeasure(s) might be improved and make a change for the better (kaizen)

  • Celebrate: express gratitude, share your work and ideas with others, and celebrate success as a whole team

The show heavily emphasized “explore” through direct observation of problems at their source. A popular version of this in the Lean Startup community is Steve Bank’s motto, “Get out of the building.” (3) Which is a Lean thinker may recognize as genchi gembutsu. According to Wikipedia,

Genchi Genbutsu (現地現物) literally translates as the "real location, real thing” and is sometimes referred to as "go and see."

“Go and see” is about understanding how things are in context - the actual thing in the actual place. This Lean principle asserts that to truly understand a situation he or she needs to observe what is happening at the site where things actually take place, the gemba (現場).

Going to the gemba is a critical practice for leaders at every level to get out of their offices and actually go to the workplace to see how the work is done rather than relying on reports and second hand information. This may be more challenging in distributed work environments, but it is still critically important. The same applies for when and where products and services are actually used. Effective leaders stay in touch with how problems are being solved and with how value is being co-created with customers in context.

For some Lean practitioners, myself included, the gemba is regarded as a sacred place of sorts. When observing the gemba as part of new coaching and consulting engagements I often experience moments of awe and reverence. I find deep satisfaction helping teams improve their own value-creating work and improve how their products and services satisfy the customer’s jobs-to-be-done. The practice of going to the gemba is related to a couple concepts in complex adaptive systems theory which will be discussed in a subsequent post, disintermediation and managing in the present. Stay tuned for more about that.

Going back to the engineering method from the show, in addition to “explore” I also really loved that the method presented emphasized “celebrate” which is something many teams don’t practice enough. Small celebrations are especially important to help accelerate the adoption of new behaviors and practices.

While most learn about the scientific method - theory corrected by experimentation – in grade school, the engineering method is less well known. Most engineers learn about it in their freshman-level engineering 101 course in college. One of my favorite descriptions, of the engineering method comes from Billy Vaughn Koen’s work, Discussion of The Method. (4).

“The engineering method is the use of heuristics to cause the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources.”

With this broad definition, Koen goes on to make some persuasive arguments to claim “to be human is to be an engineer” and “everything is heuristic.” Lean and Agile are a fantastic set of heuristics for making things better and creating more value with customers. However, like all heuristics, they are not universal truths. All Lean and Agile principles and practices have bounded applicability – some nearly universal. I’d highly recommend Koen’s work if your team, organization, or coaching community is even the slightest bit dogmatic about the “right” way of doing or being Agile. Koen’s work would also be helpful for anyone that claim’s “That’s not pure Agile” or “Have you seen any companies doing 100% Agile?”

The next post will focus on another less well-known aspect about how Toyota sustains kaizen by integrating learning and work execution.


· What method does your team use to detect and develop countermeasures to abnormal conditions?

· What is you team’s ritual for celebrating success (small wins and large alike)?

· How should leaders at every level regularly practice genchi gembutsu?


2) Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. 1986.

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