Many engineers and designers fall into a really simple trap, one that makes them instantly incompetent. These are not stupid people. They have the qualifications, so what is it that can catch someone out this badly?
It’s called ‘complacency’. Complacency is that state we all get into from time to time where we feel like we know what’s going on, and we’re comfortable there. it’s that feeling of uncritical satisfaction with the situation. It amounts to ‘zoning out’ on the situation around you while believing that everything is great. It means you’re no longer paying attention, and as with most situations, that’s when you get bitten.
So what does it mean to be ‘competent’? Competency is defined in Wikipedia as:
Competence (or competency) is the ability of an individual to do a job properly. A competency is a set of defined behaviors that provide a structured guide enabling the identification, evaluation and development of the behaviors in individual employees.
Part of developing competency in an engineering field is understanding problem definition. In primary school we start learning about problem definition as the first step in solving any problem, particularly in the maths and sciences. This process involves developing as clear an understanding of a problem as possible with the information available, and then applying our creative and analytical abilities to solve the problem. This process is developed and refined as we advance in our education, until we have it refined to a razor’s edge by the time we graduate from college or university.
The requirement for competence in practice is so important that engineering organizations everywhere have included the requirements for safety and competence into their codes of ethics. For example, the following comes from the American Society of Civil Engineers, as found on Wikipedia:
- Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
- Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.
I see the well understood problem definition process go by the wayside every day in my practice. Otherwise competent people ignore regulatory requirements and standards, getting caught with their pants down in some very embarrassing, frustrating and expensive ways.
In my view, the design process for a product starts with understanding what the thing is supposed to do. This is the user requirement. But wait, there’s more! Next you need to understand the technical requirements for the product, and this includes the regulatory and safety requirements. Only once these things are well understood can the design process begin. Understanding these requirements at the beginning of the process saves time, money, and stress for all those concerned. Taking the time to understand ALL of the requirements before the detailed design process starts is critical to success.
So why is it that so many otherwise very competent people blow it completely and miss out on the regulatory and safety elements in defining the design problem? I wish I knew. What I do know is this:
This is how you too can become Instantly Incompetent.