Engineering for Longevity

While camping this past weekend, I noticed a bunch of new broken stuff on our 1990’s pop-up camper.  It’s seems everything is broken nowadays, but a new travel trailer is not in the budget, so we’ll make due.  But still lots of stuff is broken.

And that got me thinking about engineering…

I told my wife that engineering schools could benefit from a class on “engineering for longevity.”  Students could bring in broken consumer items and analyze them for possible improvements.  In other words, figure how they might have lasted longer with a little engineering foresight.

Engineering for Longevity

Students could identify stress points in plastic parts.  They could find wear surfaces on moving parts.  They could analyze fabric tears.  Just picking up a broken twenty year old part instantly makes you think differently.  It’s a very impressionable moment.  It makes you wonder what could have been done to make a more reliable part.  Perhaps nothing can be done, but at least you are thinking in those terms.

I remarked to my wife that a lot of consumer items are nothing but cheap crap.  They have obvious design flaws, bugs, and limitations.  You can tell the manufacturer hired an engineering intern to develop the items.  Things don’t fit right, or could easily be optimized.  There’s just very little “fit and finish” any more.  And since engineering interns are young and don’t realize that stuff breaks, they produce shoddy products.  It takes somebody with experience to know where the obvious break points are.

My wife pointed out that there’s no money in consumer items to hire experienced people.  The engineering apprentice is all the company could afford, so this is what you get.  But that goes back to my original point, which is… if engineering schools had a class that familiarized students with the issue of engineering for longevity, some of them might produce better products.  Not all students would get it, but some.  And that’s worth having a class for.

All Your Eggs in One Basket

Concentrate your energies, your thoughts and your capital. The wise man puts all his eggs in one basket and watches the basket.

— Andrew Carnegie

I love that quote!  It speaks of focus and single-mindedness.  Those are qualities the project team can do well to learn.

There is a “magic” that occurs when the project team is single-minded with a burning goal on all their minds.  I’ll try to articulate the experience, as I have had been in the middle of it several times.  The closest parallel I can relate to is the focus of war.  Many speak of the chaos of war, but there is also a singular focus that it brings upon the average soldier.  And that focus is intoxicating.  Think of the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee in 1861.  Those gray-clad boys fought for a cause!  It was the cause of freedom from government tyranny.  With such a cause, they would endure some of the most grueling warfare known to man – starvation, slaughter, and privations as yet unknown to Americans.  It was all for the “cause.”

The same was true of GI’s during the Second World War.  Those soldiers knew the cause was the defeat of Hitler and the unconditional surrender of Germany.  Everyone focused on the same goal, whether on the battlefield or at home.  It was one singular goal everyone could focus on.

This happens in the engineering world from time to time.  Underdog companies focus on one goal of building that killer product that will change the industry.  For the most part everyone speaks the same “language.”  It is the language of winning… of succeeding regardless of the hurdles… of performing their very best, if only once in their lifetimes.

People want causes.  It gives them one good thing to fight for that’s worthwhile and lasting.  Think about it… without something truly worthwhile we are just marking time through life.  Nobody wants that.  They want their lives to mean something.

All this is wrapped up in Andrew Carnegie’s statement above.  He is describing an industry focus that consumes everyone in its path.  In Carnegie’s case, that was the manufacturing of steel, and the goal of commodity pricing that could supply the world.

Can you find a cause like that for your business?  If so, you will have all the energies of all your employees focused on success.  And they will thank you for a cause to believe in.

Project Management Doesn’t Have to be Hardcore

When most people think of project management, they think of crusty PMI propeller-heads sitting in a back office analyzing complex columns of project metrics and arriving at lofty strategic conclusions.  (Did I pitch that nerdy enough?)  In other words, project management is out of most people’s realm of understanding.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Consider a simpler model, as demonstrated by the videos below.  The stuff I’m seeing here is simple – something any average manager can wrap their brains around.


How to Read a Gantt Chart:

Project Management:

Resource Allocation:


Really, this is pretty simple project management.  From what I see, you’ve got a simple hierarchy of tasks that employees can track time to.  For each task you set up an estimated duration that you think the task will take.  Then you release it to the wild for employees to enter time against.  When they do, it puts the actual work into the task so you can compare it with the estimates.  Pretty simple so far… no propeller beanies required.

Another video showed how you can give each task a starting date that tells when employees should work on the task.  Since you have a duration for each task, and you have a proposed starting date, you can then see how much work has piled up for any given employees.  After all, you are telling how long and when his work should occur.  The video shows a nice graph telling how much work is scheduled for each time period (week, month, or quarter).  It may have a fancy name (resource allocation) but it’s really pretty simple from my perspective.

Why not give these tools a try?  You don’t have to be a propeller-head to set up a few tasks and start tracking time to them.  You don’ t need a degree in project management or sit in a PMO office with all the bean counters.  To me, this looks like project management for the non-project managers.

You don’t have to be hardcore to manage a few tasks.  Give it a try!

Why Use a Timesheet?

If you’re a consulting or contracting company, the answer to that question is a no-brainer.  Or so says the video below.  In this video, the author asserts that consulting companies absolutely must use a timesheet for the job.  I tend to agree.  Consulting has become so complex, and the margins so slim that you can’t afford to lose a single hour of billable time.

Consultants regularly check their utilization rates to make sure they are making money.  Utilization is the ration of billable to scheduled hours for the employee.  For example, if the employee is scheduled for 40 hours and only works 35, then he is only 88% utilized.  And because he hasn’t worked the full 40, he is not billing as many hours as possible.  Therefore, his effective billing rate is lower than what the company actually charges for his work.

Here’s an example of a poor effective billing rate.  Suppose a consultant bills at $100 per hour.  But he only gets 10 hours per week of billable work.  His effective billing rate is now only $25 per scheduled hour.  And if you miss any of those hours, the rate goes down.  So using a timesheet to collect and account for all the billable time is probably a no-brainer.


Manufacturing companies like to track project hours using a timesheet.  It allows them to connect with their employees and see where their time is going.  But it has more value than that.  Manufacturers who track projects want to improve their deliverable schedules, milestone predictions, and task duration estimates.  This obviously lends credibility to their project management efforts.  The only way to get good project task estimates is to use a timesheet.  They must collect actual employee hours so those hours can be compared with the original estimates.

And finally, even if you are not a services-based company that tracks time for client billing, and you are not a manufacturing company that tracks project management metrics, you may still just want to see employee status and weekly hours.  That’s a good enough reason to use a timesheet.  Simply keeping an eye on employee activities is a worthwhile management practice, even if you don’t have a hard reason to use a timesheet.

All these reasons are illustrated in a nice little YouTube video.  Check out the ScoutwestInc channel for additional timesheet videos.  Some of them make a lot of sense.

Disconnect between Execs and Employees

In a recent CIO Insight survey (see link below), it was observed that executives and employees do not necessarily believe the same things.  They differ on values, communication, and culture.  Read the article below and let me know what you think.

In my opinion, this isn’t anything new.  Company executives have always had a difficult time relating to the common employee.  That’s one reason for the rise of labor unions in blue collar workplaces.  Employees simply do not believe management shares their values or even cares about them.

Actually, as a student of the American Civil War, I’ve read plenty of examples of the wide gap between officers and men in the ranks.  So we know this phenomenon has been going on for a long time.  One story was told of a Confederate private playing cards with his Federal friends until a colonel came along and threatened to take him prisoner.  Clearly, the rank and file held different beliefs about the war in progress.

I believe this belief gap stems from your role in the company.  Executives experience the company in completely different ways than employees.  Their beliefs are shaped by completely different experiences and input.  Of course, the common employees thinks he knows it all, and is usually pretty vocal about his beliefs, but they don’t always have all the information.  Sometimes company issues are just too hard to analyze from an employee perspective.  Executives may also hold similar ivory tower beliefs about their company.  After all, they sit at the top looking down on it all.  Surely they can see clearly from a strategic vantage point.

The fact is, employees and executives should swap places every so often, just to experience a different perspective.  A company I worked for tried this on a limited basis.  Software engineers were required to spend one day per quarter with tech support.  Support engineers were required to spend a day with the programmers.  This forced those employees to see things from a different perspective. 

Rifts are created when employees feel management is not listening to them, or is making bad strategic decisions.  The same is true when executives think employees are just in it for the benefits and money.  Without some mixing of the classes, this is what you get.

But in all my time, I’ve never seen employees running the company for a day, or executives on the assembly line.  Maybe this is not such a bad idea!

Improve Task Estimates, Multiply by Pi

Trouble with poor task estimation?  Introducing the three-point estimating technique.  This might help.

Te = (To + 4Tm + Tp) / 6

Here’s the problem: engineers are never good at estimating task durations.  Not even close.  When asked how long their tasks will take, they usually just say, “They’ll be done when they’re done!”  As a project manager, you have to coerce an estimate out of them.  And then multiple by Pi for the real number.  But there may be a better way.  Read on for a possible solution.


                It’ll take about two and a half months.

                Multiple by Pi

                Result: eight months

First off, Engineers just don’t like estimating time.  They have technical issues to deal with, and are not practiced in the arts of time estimation.  They feel uncomfortable in fuzzy areas like this because they don’t spend any time thinking about such things.  The traffic in mathematical and logical conundrums, not project scheduling.  You might just as well ask them how much their tasks will cost, or how much the company will make from the product, once marketed.  It’s just not something they spend any time considering.  That means you have to take their task estimates with a grain of salt, or perhaps with a more scientific calculation.

What could be more scientific than multiplying them by Pi?  🙂

The three-point estimate technique below first appeared with PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique).  It has some merit when dealing with task durations, and might be more accurate than multiplying engineer estimates by some arbitrary number.

Start by taking this three-point estimate below from the engineer for each task.  You must get them to tell you the most likely duration for each task, which they will understate by a longshot… then you must try for an optimistic estimate, which they will assert is the same as the first estimate… then finally you have to get them to spit out a pessimistic duration, at which point they will argue is also the same as the first two, and that you are stupid for asking… now go away!  But if you can get these three numbers, you can plug them into the three-point estimate calculation below.

  • 1. Tm – Most Likely estimate (example: 6 months)
  • 2. To – Optimistic estimate (example: 4 months)
  • 3. Tp – Pessimistic estimate (example: 12 months)

With these three estimates, you can run a calculation to find the mean estimate.  (Find this calculation on page 150 of the PMBOK.)

                Te = (To + 4Tm + Tp) / 6

                Example: (4 + 4(6) + 12) / 6 = 8 months

The results are a good prediction of human estimations, assuming that most people under-judge the duration of most tasks.  They simply forget or don’t consider all the possible details in executing their assigned tasks.  This calculation makes up for that lack of detail.

Hope it works for you!