Engineers – Yeah, we can do that. SHOULD we be doing that?

Having worked as an engineer, with other engineers, in companies where some of the managers were engineers, I have observed that often we engineers don’t ask the right questions.

This is because most people that become engineers really love to solve problems and make things work. And while there are the occasional arrogant jerks, most engineers want to be good people who do good jobs.

So when someone comes to us with a problem, our first impulse is to figure out how to fix the problem. Sometimes we may argue that the “problem” really isn’t a problem, but if we do agree that it is causing undesirable consequences, we’ll probably try to find a way to fix that.

And because we are so used to dealing with technology, and we realize not everyone likes technology, we’re especially helpful with technological problems.

But a lot of times people problems masquerade as technological problems. And this is where engineers meet their nemesis – dealing with social systems. I have seen multiple occasions where one person (or sometimes a whole department) learns that all they have to do is say they can’t get a program or piece of equipment to work, and somewhere nearby will be a helpful engineer saying “I can help with that” or even better (WORSE!) “well, don’t worry about the program not doing that, I’ll just remember to check that from now on.”

This is a short term solution that creates many more long term problems.

Now that the engineer is taking that extra step, the process or personnel issue that originally caused the problem is no longer clearly visible. And if it’s a process or personnel issue that caused one problem, that issue is bound to cause more problems in the future. Will any of those future root cause issues get fixed? Doubtful, because it’s so much easier for everyone involved to dump it on the engineers.

And the engineers go along with it, because then they don’t have to sit through a bunch of icky and boring meetings with other people (probably irrational and emotional people, too) to figure out what’s happening in the first place and how to fix it.

And the non-engineers are also happy because they didn’t have to disturb their routines and the problem is now someone else’s responsibility. Everyone wins.

Or everyone wins, for as long as there aren’t so many little things to keep track of, and so many little fires to put out, and so many little things to fix, that the engineer can’t get anything done that is part of their actual job description. And then their boss is standing there, telling them “I can see you’re busy all day, but nothing seems to ever get finished. What are we to do?”

So, sometimes engineers have to discipline ourselves. Yeah, we can probably do what you’re asking. But SHOULD we be doing what you’re asking?

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