Many engineers and designers fall into a really simple trap 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 are 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 defining the problem. In primary school, we start learning about problem definition as the first step in solving any problem, particularly in 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 in 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 daily in my practice. Otherwise, competent people ignore regulatory requirements and standards, getting caught with their pants down in 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 product’s technical requirements, including 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 all concerned time, money, and stress. Taking the time to understand ALL requirements before the detailed design process starts is critical to success.
So why do 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.
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