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How to become Instantly Incompetent

2012 April 10

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.

Epic Fail!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:

  1. 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.
  2. Engineers shall per­form ser­vices only in areas of their com­pe­tence.

Similar require­ments exist in the OACETT Code of Ethics in Ontario, a pro­fes­sional orga­ni­za­tion that cer­ti­fies Technicians and Technologists, as well as in the IEEE Code of Ethics.

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.


Post By Doug Nix (95 Posts)

+DougNix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. (http://​www​.com​pli​an​cein​sight​.ca) in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Managing Editor of the Machinery Safety 101 blog.

Doug’s work includes teach­ing machin­ery risk assess­ment tech­niques pri­vately and through Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal ser­vices and train­ing pro­grams to clients related to risk assess­ment, indus­trial machin­ery safety, safety-​​related con­trol sys­tem inte­gra­tion and reli­a­bil­ity, laser safety and reg­u­la­tory conformity.

Website: → Compliance inSight Consulting Inc.


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  • Sylvana

    You stated the incom­pe­tency issue well! The argu­ment must be taken and eval­u­ated by each indi­vid­u­als that are work­ing. Workers must set their mind to have com­pe­tent out­puts for their com­pany and to them selves.

    • Doug Nix

      Thanks, Sylvana! The issue of incom­pe­tency is an impor­tant one, and one that is often over­looked I think. In my prac­tice I have seen some oth­er­wise very com­pe­tent peo­ple make some very incom­pe­tent deci­sions because they didn’t get all the infor­ma­tion they needed BEFORE they made the deci­sion. Recognizing that it is easy to get caught in ‘analy­sis paral­y­sis’, deci­sion mak­ers need to be cau­tious about get­ting hung up in the data gath­er­ing stage, but engi­neers and design­ers only need to select the stan­dards and read them, or look the reg­u­la­tions up on the Web to get the info they need. Failure to do so is the source of ‘Instant Incompetence’!

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