Category Archives: Engineering Leadership

Engineering-to-Business Alignment For Profitability

The business world and engineering world speak different languages and operate at different tempos with a shared imperative to meet the needs of customers.  Businesses that leverage technology innovation for competitive advantage need to find their ‘E2B Alignment Rosetta Stone‘ for the best results in their business context. How can the engineering leader facilitate effective alignment between engineering and the business?

Why is Engineering Work Different?

The business world operates according to the laws of social science, fraught with ‘short termism’, and the pressure to constantly perform, compete, satisfy customer needs while commercially relevant engineering work requires more time and functions in the presence of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) bounded by the laws of science. Engineering work involves solving difficult problems that arise in the business and the market place, creating new products to create new value for the firms, finding new ways to meet regulations to remain compliant and possibly creating competitive advantage, and optimizing design performance to achieve cost and quality. The answer to engineering problems is not known in advance and the time that a solution is ready is not known to any degree of certainty. Some engineering problems are simple while others are wicked and ugly problems. Engineering problems are almost always complex. While others may be unsolvable within the current state-of-the-art or beyond laws of physics. Novel solutions require creativity, experimentation, and learning that are difficult to schedule.  How can engineering leaders bridge these incongruent worlds?

 Common Goal – Increasing Profits

The answer rests in remembering the common goal.  The common goal of both business and engineering is to increase the profits of the firm.  Easily stated but accounting is the day-to-day language of business which enables them to clearly see how to increase profits through business actions with well defined measurements for feedback.  The engineering world does not speak accounting nor is it often clear how engineering decisions can increase profits.  Engineers ought to speak the language of accounting better, but practically speaking their education and professional development is often all consuming in the increasingly complex engineering world.  Apart from every engineer taking an MBA or second degree in accounting how can engineering leaders help their staff to understand how their actions increase profits? Engineering leaders need an E2B alignment Rosetta Stone to translate engineering decisions into profit impact.

E2B Alignment Rosetta Stone – Engineering Profit Decision Tool

Fortunately in all cases an engineering profit decision tool can be created to help engineers make sound business decisions and trade-offs that increase profits in terms they can understand. The problem is that most businesses don’t take the time in this fast paced world to develop one.

The engineering profit decision tool can be developed using the approach illustrated below. The resulting business model can then be the E2B Alignment Rosetta Stone to help engineers to translate engineering actions into profits.

Engineering Decision Rules

Engineering leaders need to facilitate the development of the engineering profit decision tool with help from the other business functions (marketing, finance, operations, and project management). The baseline profit/cost model is the P&L statement for the project, new product development, service line, etc. delivered by engineering.  Like any model key assumptions need to be captured. A sensitivity analysis is then performed on key cost drivers such as: time; unit cost; engineering operating expense; value; performance; and risk as appropriate for the context of the business. The sensitivity analysis can then be used to define profit impact parameters.  These profit impact parameters can then be stated in terms of engineering decision rules (that are understood by engineers).  As engineers go about their work key decisions arise that require trade-offs amongst competing alternative courses of action.  The engineering decision rules can help them to compare alternatives and decision on the best alternative that maximizes the profit to the company. Over time the results of the decisions become evident in the business results enabling feedback adjustments to the model.

The key to success is taking the time to build the first model, trial it on a pilot project, build buy-in, train the broader engineering team, and then refine and expand its use. This post has provided the high level picture and there is clearly more effort to perform each step in the process suitable for each firm.  Contact Alopex Management Consulting if you are interested in developing an engineering profit decision tool.

Top 6 Engineering Leadership Priorities

Engineering leaders need to devote time to 6 priorities for a vibrant and sustainable engineering capability that supports the strategic ambition of the business. Engineering leaders are often so drawn into the day-to-day demands of the operation that these 6 priorities are ignored to the detriment of the business. There are no absolute right or wrong ways to meet the 6 priorities but rather each must be decided as a collective package by the engineering leadership team in the strategic context of the business. The senior engineering executive should then integrate these decisions with those of the overall business at the senior management level and negotiate and adjust as necessary bringing back the rationale for any modifications to the engineering leadership team.


Engineering staff need to understand the purpose of the business in order to orient their efforts to support the success of the business. Engineering leaders need to clarify and communicate the purpose of the business, the purpose of engineering in the context of the business, and how individual and collective team efforts achieve the purpose.  The purpose is often expressed in the vision or expressed as the winning aspiration of the firm, as for example described by A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin in Playing to Win.

Inspiration comes from a deep connection between the purpose and meaning in engineering work. Engineering leaders need to help their staff to relate the meaning in engineering work to the winning aspirations of the firm to maximize engagement and productivity. Engineering leaders should work with the engineering supervisory team to assimilate how meaning in engineering work can be leveraged through recruitment, job assignment, and performance management.


Engineering leaders need to align the engineering effort with the strategic choices of  the business. Continuing on from the purpose, Lafley & Martin have defined an integrated cascade of strategic choices aligning from the winning aspiration of the firm to: where the firm will compete; how will the firm win in terms of value proposition and competitive advantage; what capabilities are required to win; and what management systems are required to support these choices. In the context of the integrated cascade of strategic choices engineering may be central to a firm’s strategic ambition or play a supporting role. Engineering may be heavily integrated with other business functions or stand-alone. Engineering leaders need to deeply consider how engineering is aligned and how it meshes with the firm’s strategic choices.

Labovitz and Rosansky provide an alignment framework for engineering leaders to operationalize the cascade of strategic choices in their book Rapid Realignment. Labovitz and Rosansky’s framework separates out vertical alignment and horizontal alignment to structure actions.

  1. Vertical Alignment – The vertical alignment seeks to align employees to the strategic choices of the firm by defining critical success factors, goals, focus areas that can be owned by each business function, such as engineering, and the precise activities and tactics required to deliver the critical success factors. The role of engineering leaders in the strategic alignment exercise is to contribute to the definition of critical success factors that support the strategic choices.  Engineering leaders then need to own the creation of the action plans to deliver the critical success factors.
  2. Horizontal Alignment – The horizontal alignment seeks to align value creating processes with the needs of the customer.  Value chains are clarified for both internal and external customers.  The role of engineering leaders are to understand what the customer wants and how they prefer to be served and establish process to meet and try to exceed customer requirements.


Engineering leaders need to foster and support a culture in engineering that aligns with the strategic choices of the business and maximizes the outcome required from engineering. Culture often emerges in a business based on its history of shared experiences and is reflected in the sum of the firm’s shared values, beliefs, and norms of behaviour.  Culture can be business wide with local differences in functions, business units, and locations.  Culture is rarely homogenous as firm’s grow. Major strategic changes can bring about large dissonance between the existing and desired culture.

The competing values framework is useful for engineering leaders to understand the current culture in engineering and to identify change emphasis to align with the strategic choices of the business. The competing values framework maps organization culture in two dimensions: vertically between stability & control and flexibility & discretion; and horizontally between external focus & differentiation and internal focus & integration.  The competing values framework defines four cultures coinciding with the map quadrants:

  1. Clan Culture (Collaboration or Human Resources) – A culture high on flexibility and discretion but internally focussed. Cultural descriptors are: participation and open debate; employee concerns and ideas; human relations, teamwork, and cohesion; and morale.
  2. Adhocracy (Create or Open Systems) – A culture high on flexibility and discretion but more external focussed. Cultural descriptors are: innovation & change; creative problem solving; decentralization’ and new ideas.
  3. Hierarchy (Control or Internal Process) – A culture high on stability & control but internally focussed. Cultural descriptors are: predictable outcomes; stability and continuity; order; and dependability and reliability.
  4. Market (Compete or rational goal) – A culture that is high on stability and control but externally focussed.  Cultural descriptors are: outcome of excellence & quality; getting the job done; goal achievement; and doing one’s best.

Organizations often exhibit characteristics of each of these four culture types but typically emphasize one type for the strategic choices of the firm. Leadership often relates to the right side (direction, inspiration, change, growth, competitiveness) of the map while management relates to the left side (planning, budgeting, controlling). Firms in stable markets with little change often become internally focussed and stagnate in clan and hierarchy dominant cultures. Firms in rapidly changing markets must be externally focussed with emphasis on adhocracy and market dominant cultures.

Engineering leaders need to look deeper into the culture of their organization and reflect on these observations. Engineering leaders need to ask whether their culture is appropriate for the expectations of the business and what tangible actions are needed to bring it into line. Most actions will involve leading by example. An external change, or change in leadership, may bring about a subtle shift in culture. Engineering leaders need to facilitate discussions in engineering to help employees understand why things need to change or why their shared values, beliefs, and norms of behaviour may be incongruent with the strategic choices made by the firm.

Value Proposition

Engineering leaders need to understand how engineering capabilities create value for customers to achieve horizontal alignment as previously described. Engineering may deliver value directly to an external customer or to an internal customer before value is delivered to the external customer.  Engineering leaders need to clarify how engineering supports the value proposition of the firm – or how engineering supports how the firm will win. The two well known fundamental ways to win, based on Porter’s Competitive Strategy, are: cost leadership and differentiation.

  1. Engineering Cost Leadership – Engineering delivered cheaper than the competition enabling the business to underprice the competition or reinvest the margin differential to support other aspects of the strategic choices of the firm.
  2. Engineering Differentiation – Engineering providing a source of differentiation for the business measured in terms of solutions compared with competition that: are faster, cheaper, safer, do more, do things better, do things that no one else can do, etc.

Engineering organizations may perform more than one value added activity (product design, consulting advice, sustaining engineering, manufacturing engineering, safety compliance, detailed drawings, etc.)  so it is up to the engineering leadership to identify them and decide how to organize effort to deliver them. Engineering leaders should avoid multi-tasking engineers with activities that may support separate ways to win. The nature of each way of winning can be very different.  As Lafley and Martin emphasize:

  1. Low Cost Strategies – Based on systemic understanding of costs and cost drivers, relentless reduction of costs, sacrifice of non-conforming customers, and commitment to standardization.
  2. Differentiation Strategies – Based on deep and holistic understanding of customers, intensive brand building, jealous guarding of customers, and commitment to innovation.

Engineering leaders therefore need to think deeply of how engineering is expected to contribute to the business aspirations profitability, growth, and competitiveness. Culture also supports these strategies where low cost strategies demand more internally focussed culture such as Hierarchy and Clan, whereas differentiation strategies demand more externally focussed culture such as Market and Adhocracy. The right culture needs to match the intended way to win. Complex engineering organizations may need sub-organizations with different dominant cultures.

External Change and Innovation

Engineering leaders need to be mindful how the firm is positioned in the external environment and how the external environment is changing. Engineering leaders need to be attuned to subtle shifts and craft possible solutions to create new value for the firm through innovation.  Engineering leaders should seek opportunities for their employees to spend time with customer’s and understand their issues and needs.  Changes sensed in the external environment become the ‘Why’ in any change initiative.  Firms with hierarchy and clan cultures which are inherently more internally focussed run the risk of missing subtle shifts in the market or customer preference.

The need for change can fall anywhere along a spectrum from small to disruptive. Responses to big external changes can only be actioned through a fundamental revisit of the strategic choices of the firm. Engineering cannot act unilaterally in this case but engineering can often act as the bell weather or early alarm for the business. Engineering can also help the firm to connect the dots in the presence of market ambiguity. Firms in slow changing markets may only need to make incremental adjustments but these markets are becoming rarer in a rapidly changing world.

In almost all cases innovation is the main response to external change. Engineering leaders need to decide the degree of need for innovation in the context of their industry competitive intensity and rate of industry change then foster the required environment for innovation to respond to external change. Innovation strategy should always be devised at the company level but engineering capabilities often play a leading role in executing innovation strategy. Investment is almost always required for innovation.   Categories of innovation strategy are: do nothing; adapt/adopt; incremental; transformational; and breakthrough.

Engineering leaders need to select and propose the appropriate innovation strategy in the context of industry competitive intensity and rate of industry change. Ignoring the do nothing innovation strategy, most engineering organizations implement some form of innovation strategy for example:

  1. Adapt / Adopt Innovation Strategy – Engineering leadership may acquire new CAD, CAE, analysis, or tools to gain advantage in saving time or improve performance. Although not recognized as such capital expenditures on engineering almost always brings new innovative business processes.
  2. Incremental Innovation Strategy – Engineering leadership may implement process improvement, product upgrades, or add-ons that provide small gains in time savings, new value creation, etc.
  3. Transformational Innovation Strategy – Engineering leadership may propose a step-change to a product or process that requires investment but the return for the firm can’t be ignored.
  4. Breakthrough Innovation Strategy – Although mainly the realm of new technology start-ups engineering leadership may propose a investment project that could create a new-to-the-world market or disruption to the an existing market.

Engineering leaders then need to establish an environment suitable for the selected innovation strategy. The environment not only needs to support the generation of ideas but one that implements ideas and measures outcomes. A culture of learning and experimentation is critical to an effective environment for innovation. Firms in rapidly changing markets therefore need to move to a Market or Adhocracy culture. Sticking with a Hierarchy or Clan culture is a recipe for disaster in rapidly changing markets.


Engineering leaders need to actively manage the balance between the short term operational demands of the business and long term sustainability of the firm’s value proposition. This is the balance between delivery and innovation.  The balance between tactical and strategic.  The balance between today and tomorrow. The balance between exploit and explore. The balance between leadership and management. Engineering leaders need to make time for long term, innovation, strategic, and tomorrow in spite of the pressures of the day-to-day. As John Kotter said ‘over managed, under led organizations are increasingly vulnerable in a fast moving world’. If engineering leaders can’t make the time to focus on moving the engineering capability in response to changes in the external environment and changing customer needs then they risk becoming irrelevant or exposed to the competition to exploit.

Leadership vs Management

How do these engineering leadership 6 priorities relate to engineering management. As Kotter explains leadership is about ‘taking the firm into the right future’, ‘finding opportunity and exploiting at an accelerated pace’, ‘defining purpose for meaning and buy-in’, ‘creating the right culture and environment to thrive’, and ‘producing useful change to make the future happen’. Kotter goes onto to explain that management is about ‘making complex organizations predictable, reliable, and efficient’, ‘executing a set of well known processes’, and ‘delivering products and services as promised consistently to quality, budget, and schedule’. As Drucker said ‘ Leadership is doing the right thing, while management is doing it right’. This also tells us that too much emphasis on management can leave the firm exposed and engineering leadership has a significant obligation to ensure that the right balance is struck between short-term and long-term view.

Engineering plays a critical role in new value creation, profitability, growth, and competitiveness for the business. The entire package of the 6 priorities need to hang together and fit the strategic intent of the firm and then adjust as the external market shifts. Together these 6 priorities provide a basis for discussion, alternative selection, and decision making for a vibrant and sustainable engineering capability that supports the strategic ambition of the business.

Engineering Productivity

Engineering leaders interested in improving their profitability need to understand how the Theory of Constraints can improve engineering productivity and perhaps most importantly under what business conditions. This post reviews the evolution of throughput methodologies from where they were first applied in the manufacturing environment to newer approaches evolving for engineering, new product development, and R&D where the business goals are improved profitability and new value creation for growth and competitiveness.

Theory of Constraints

Eli Goldratt’s book The Goal (1984) helped a generation of manufacturers understand the operational principles underlying the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing.  Goldratt defined the goal as improved profits and clarified the operational rules for running a plant to be in order of priority throughput, inventory, and operational expense as opposed to pure cost cutting that lead to localized optimums and poor profitability results. He explained how the Theory of Constraints (TOCs) when applied through these operational rules can improve the profitability of a manufacturing operation with stable input demand. The TOC was first applied to manufacturing operations that can be characterized as a repeatable network of dependent events with processes that are subject to statistical fluctuations.  The TOC focusses on system constraints to improve throughput, inventory, and operational expenses in the total production system.  The key conditions that enable the TOC to achieve results in manufacturing are stable demand, moderate to high volumerepeatable processes, and a small range of products.

Unstable Production Environments

Eli Goldratt’s paper Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (published with The Goal) went on to clarify how certain production environments and conditions can become unstable leading to marginal improvement gains from applying TOC.   In this paper Goldratt described the Hitachi Tool Engineering case where the firm had limited success with lean manufacturing because of their unstable production environment conditions.

The three general conditions Goldratt identified that lead to unstable production environments are:

  1. Unstable Demand Per Product
  2. Unstable Overall Load On The Entire Production System
  3. Short Product Life

The first two unstable production environments fall within the means of a manufacturing company to manage because the production system can still be characterized as a network of dependent events with processes that are subject to statistical fluctuations.  Full productivity gains are not achieved because of how the production system throughput reacts to the unstable input demand due to dynamic mix of products, too many different products, or how dynamically the input demand of different types of products results in unstable overall load on the system. Goldratt explains how a time-based application of supply chain approach of TOC in a method called Drum-Buffer-Rope system can achieve improved performance for the first two conditions. Goldratt observed that low touch time production environments (Touch Time <<< Lead Time) provide enough margin to still exploit TOC benefits.

The third unstable production environment, short product life, emerged in the 1980s from the increased pace of technological change on manufacturing operations. The turn time (lead time) performance of engineering, product development, and R&D became a factor for product companies bringing attention to knowledge worker productivity.  Goldratt observed that product development systems do not exhibit processes that are ‘network of dependent events with processes that are subject to statistical fluctuations’. Each new product develop effort tend to have a unique network of dependent events with high variability which is consistent with a a project environment. Goldratt also observed that the project environments also exhibits time compression where touch time approaches lead time (lead time ~ 2 to 3 times touch time) of the project which degrades project environment throughput.

Unstable Project Environments

To solve the unstable project environment problem Eli Goldratt went on to develop the Critical Chain method in the 1990s.  The Critical Chain method adapts the TOC to unstable project environments with a particular emphasis on engineering development projects. In much the same format as The Goal his book Critical Chain (1997) explains how the Critical Chain method achieves improved project performance over Critical Path methods. The goal of Critical Chain method is to improve the flow (throughput) in project environments for stable and unstable project demand.  The mental jump from manufacturing production environments to project environments is helped when one considers that most project environments are multi-project environments.  Throughput in a project environment is understood to be the flow of projects (and their activities) of various degree of: sizes, durations, complexity, uncertainty and novelty.

The Critical Chain method seeks to maximize project environment throughput by managing feeding buffers and capacity buffers within the project and drum buffers and capacity buffers between projects.  The Critical Chain methods use of buffers (time & resource) to improve productivity by reducing Work In Process (Design in Process), manage bottleneck resources, not allowing multi-tasking of resources, staggering projects along the constraints, prioritizing projects, and resolve resource conflicts on the system level.

An interesting aspect of Goldratt’s Critical Chain method was how to consider behavioural issues in multi-project engineering environments. The Critical Chain method addresses:

  1. Tendency for engineers to ‘pad their estimates’ to give local safety margins that degrade the efficiency of the project environment by use lumped buffers (rather than activity-by-activity risk buffers) and focussing less on individual activity time performance.
  2. Overcome the tendency to think locally (within the project or a work area) by encouraging global thinking by avoiding multitasking.
  3. Manage ‘student syndrome’, the tendency for humans with time buffers to start their tasks later and waste safety margins.
  4. Manage ‘Parkinson’s law’, the tendency not to finish tasks ahead of time even they have a chance to by removing activity padding.
  5. Minimize the individual project owners pressure to execute first (local optimization at the expense of the global performance) by adopting a priority system.

An excellent review of the Critical Chain method can be found in a 2005 paper by Lechler, Ronan, and Stohr with some useful simplifications that make the method more practical.

Product Development Flow

Donald Reinertsen developed a parallel set of work to Goldratt that explored and clarified much of the underlying principles of lean product development from the perspective of achieving faster time-to-market in the project production environment. Reinertsen’s books Developing Products in Half The Time (1991) co-authored with Preston Smith, Managing the Design Factory (1997), and The Principles of Product Development Flow (2009) explored an economic model for design, queues in product development work, management systems, managing risk, lean engineering principles, and performance metrics more appropriate for the paradigm shift from the traditional utilization based management paradigm to a throughput management paradigm for engineering, product development, and R&D.

Reinertsen also defines Design in Process (DIP) in the project production environment since inventory is measured in terms of information in the knowledge work space. The abstract nature of information inventory and visualizing how it flows through a knowledge based work environment has probably been the single largest factor holding back the broader adoption of lean product development.

Reinertsen clarifies how the project production environment differs from the manufacturing production environment with repeatable network of dependent events with processes that are subject to statistical fluctuations to one with high variability (uncertainty, learning, experimentation), non-repetitive (every project network is different, sometimes completely), and non-homogeneous task durations (most tasks slightly different each time). Reinertsen’s most recent book Principles of Product Development Flow in particular explores the themes of cadence, synchronization, flow control, WIP constraints, batch size, exploiting variability, queue size, fast feedback, and decentralized control to maximized throughput.  Although these works provide a vast array of tools it is difficult to see the big picture framework suitable for practical implementation.

Lean Product Development

Ronald Mascitelli, Timothy Schipper and Mark Swets went onto develop fully integrated lean product development frameworks that operationalized the principles for engineering leaders who are responsible for new product development.  Most importantly they describe how to fully implement a multi-project production environment based on the all the preceding methods but appropriate for actual business environment.

Ronald Mascitelli’s Mastering Lean Product Development (2011) is perhaps the best integrated framework for the engineering, product development, and R&D leader to establish a throughput managed multi-project production environment. Mascitelli’s framework is an event-driven process incorporating practical lean methods to achieve the goals of improved profitability and new value creation for growth and competitiveness.

Timothy Schipper and Mark Swets published Innovative Lean Development (2010) to describe an equally powerful integrated framework that leverages fast learning cycles and rapid prototyping for project production environments with high uncertainty.

Agile Scrum

In the digital information age as products have become software driven and in many cases entirely software based the agile scrum methodologies have operationalized software product development emerging in early 2000s. The abstract nature of software development defied reliable engineering management methodologies before the emergence of agile scrum. With agile scrum software productivity is more manageable, efficient, and effective. Software driven products require the integration of the agile scrum methodologies within the project production environment framework just described.

The Lean Start-Up

Up to this point in the post we have looked at how established companies with existing demand can exploit the TOC for improving throughput, inventory, and operational expenses to improve profitability in knowledge work. Finally Eric Ries operationalized new-to-the world lean product development (particularly digital offerings) for start-up founders in his book The Lean Start-Up (2011). This is the extreme unstable demand case.  Ries describes how to measure productivity as validated learning for fast iteration and customer insight to find the scalable business model before cash runs out.  Application of lean principles such as small batch size in the form of minimum viable product, build-measure-learn loop for fast feedback, metrics, and adaptability to find product/market fit. Ries observes that The Lean Start-Up is also applicable within existing companies for use by intrapreneurs who may be creating new value with new-to-the-world products because this is also the extreme unstable demand case.

Productivity Methodology Selection Based On Business Environment

Selecting the right methodology to drive business productivity requires leaders to understand their business environment and the stability of their demand environment. The diagram below helps to characterize application & business environments.

Engineering Productivity TOC

The diagram illustrates that in both manufacturing and engineering that the nature of the work can fall into a range of demand conditions.

A key lesson from this review is that leaders should seek to throttle/smoothen (WIP Constrain) the input demand conditions if productivity improvements results are to be achieved.  All the available methodologies are based on the concept of flow and maximizing throughput and managing inventory (physical or information), and operational expense to achieve business the goals of improved profitability and new value creation for growth and competitiveness. As Goldratt emphasized time and again effectiveness of these methods depend the key underlying condition of stable input demand or constraining the process input demand to ensure stable flow. As demand conditions become unstable lean engineering methods have been developed by Goldratt, Reinertsen, Mascitelli, Schipper, and Swets. Ries has described how new cash flow streams can be created in a lean fashion in the extreme case where demand does not yet exist.

Finally a common theme throughout these works is the fact that cost accounting methods and data tools are ill suited to measure throughput, inventory, and operational expenses to achieve business the goals of improved profitability and new value creation for growth and competitiveness. Goldratt explores this issue at length in The Goal why a blind focus on cost reduction leads to bad performance.  This problem has continued as throughput and TOC methods have evolved in the information age as pointed out by Reinertsen of the invisibility of DIP because of how R&D expenses are recognized at the time the money is spent. Information inventory and intangible assets remain as a problem for cost accounting and business performance management. This will be a topic of future posts.

Sustaining Systems Thinking in Engineering Teams

Engineering leaders are increasingly concerned about sustaining engineering competency and experience as the baby boomer generation begins to retire taking with it a tremendous volume of knowledge and experience. Complex system based industries such as aerospace and defence, automotive, and shipbuilding are particularly susceptible to the loss of systems engineering competencies gained from a long sequence of increasingly advanced projects delivered between the 1960s to the present day.

A PhD thesis by Caroline Lamb Collaborative Systems Thinking: An exploration of the mechanisms enabling team systems thinking explored how engineering teams approach systems thinking in aerospace systems development.  Motivated by the greying of aerospace engineers in America this study provides a very comprehensive view of how systems thinking can be sustained in the long run following a loss of corporate knowledge (ie. from baby boomer retirements, corporate restructuring, etc).

Although specific to aerospace this research provides some very useful generalized approaches to establish, sustain, and improve engineering teams engaged in complex systems development. This research complements views on teamwork, innovation, and creativity when applied to complex systems.

Collaborative Systems Thinking

Lamb defined collaborative systems thinking as ‘big picture‘ thinking and a necessary skill for complex systems design coupling the analytical side of engineering design with the creative side of engineering design that ensures the final product delivers the desired functionality. In this research the term ‘collaborative systems thinking’ is used to differentiate between systems thinking within teams and systems thinking performed by individual engineers. This differentiation is useful in a generalized context where most would agree today that teamwork is the favoured organizational effectiveness work model.

Generalized Traits of Collaborative Systems Thinking Teams

Lamb reports that generalized traits of collaborative systems thinking teams. Collaborative systems thinking teams:

  1. Engage in more consensus decision making.
  2. Require a team structure with three categories of membership: systems leadership (strong systems thinkers who balance technical and social interactions of the team); technical translators (act as interface between system leadership and functional experts); and functional experts (bring specialized technical knowledge to the team).
  3. Prefer communication by real-time group interactions.
  4. Possess team members who have a higher number of past and concurrent (optimal maximum of three) project experience.
  5. Prefer supportive team environment with enablers of trust, shared understanding of team purpose, and engaging in good discussions that stimulate good ideas.
  6. Have more creative work environments with high decision freedom.
  7. Require both technical and social leadership.
  8. Conceptual design teams are more likely to engage in collaborative systems thinking.

Traits that were not found to have a strong influence on collaborative systems thinking included: team size, collocation, customer base (ie. military vs commercial), measures of technical process use or tailoring, and individual systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Heuristics

Lamb captured a number of heuristics that describe collaborative systems thinking team behaviours. Collaborate systems thinking teams:

  1. Concentrate on the system: “Collaborative systems thinking teams concentrate on the system, on finding an elegant solution. Requirements are secondary to that design. Teams engage in systems thinking when the individuals are genuinely interested and engaged in the task. Fundamentally, the solution comes not when we are concentrating on the constraints, but when we become engrossed with the problems at hand.”
  2. Communicate effectively for the context: “Clear communication is critical to collaborative systems thinking. Teams tend to over use email and other IT tools. Sometimes you just need to walk around and speak with others. After all, you can’t delete a walk-in.”
  3. Ask lots of questions: “The asking and answering of questions brings both parties to new realizations. It helps teams and individuals identify built-in assumptions and move away from what we’ve always done. A team needs the leader to ask the right questions; an individual who is curious, imaginative, knowledgeable, and can help others look at the problem from outside of the box.”
  4. Good process execution needs both standardization and innovation: “Many people are comfortable following guidelines and rules, but process can become brittle. Teams require a balance of individuals that follow the letter of the law and individuals who follow the ‘spirit’ of rules; who reframe problems to get around rules. This is how we innovate and improve.”

  5. Both experience and analysis are important: “In a team setting there must be a balance between experience and analysis. Experience feeds the team’s intuition and frames how each new problem is faced. However, in innovative situations intuition can be a liability, and teams must use tools to find new knowledge and overcome the inertia of past experience.”

  6. History tends to repeat itself: “Engineering mistakes repeat every 7-10 years. This is the time it takes for critical people to rotate off a program and for important knowledge to be lost and rediscovered through failure. Successful programs have a line of succession: a continuity of knowledge through awareness of the past, present, and future. When this continuity is broken is when teams are doomed to repeat failures of the past.”

  7. Engineers are unique individuals: “Team members, especially the smart and innovative, come with ‘warts.’ Team leaders cannot tolerate disruptive behavior, but need to treat each person individually to get their best work and to help them become better engineers and team members.”


This research provides useful guidelines to assist engineering leaders create the best environment for engineering teams involved in the ‘fuzzy front end’ of product development where uncertainty is high. The research is perhaps less relevant to later execution engineering work.

The research also provides some key insight into team structure and make-up. To sustain systems thinking firms should keep teams formed over the long term to build experience even though individuals may leave or join the group and the team may be assigned to new projects.  The research suggests that to sustain systems thinking a great deal of attention needs to be paid to developing engineering leaders with the combination of technical and social skills to deliver integrated systems.

Social media has some interesting implications on future team based engineering particular where it enables real-time communication if team members are not co-located.

Meaning in Engineering Work – Maximizing Engagement and Productivity

How engineers perceive meaning in their work has a strong influence on their engagement and productivity.

As professionals, engineers are committed to serve society and ensure the safety of the public. Engineers who consult independently often clarify their personal view of meaning and align their meaning with business growth as their practice matures but the meaning derived by engineers who work in large organizations are often overlooked.   Poor productivity and work performance in these larger engineering organization can be attributed to a weakened sense of meaning or disconnect with the mission of the business. Meaning in engineering work can be deeply rooted in factors unique to the individual creating a driving force behind their work ethic.  Leadership can seek to align and enhance meaning in engineering work to maximize engineering productivity and organizational goal achievement creating a win / win for each individual and the company.  These principles apply to any work and knowledge work in particular but this blog post looks at meaning, engagement, and productivity in the context of engineering work.

Meaning in Engineering Work

In order to understand how engineers view meaning in their work it is helpful to understand the levels of meaning illustrated in the meaning pyramid based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The strength in meaning increases moving up the pyramid to its strongest at the peak.   Productivity increases as meaning increases resulting from the deeper sense of engagement and alignment.  Meaning in work can therefore be a powerful driver of engineering productivity.  Each individual engineer is answering the question “why am I doing this work?”.   The role of the leader is to encourage discussion on this question with each individual and integrate the responses with day-to-day delivery and planning such that the individual and business both benefit.

Engineering Meaning Pyramid

Physical Meaning in Engineering Work

Physical meaning is the basic or foundation layer where the meaning in work supplies the most basic drive.  The physical level meaning encompasses: earning a living, supporting self or family, paying off student debts, achieving work/life balance, supporting interests such as sports or travel.   Working only for this layer will provide the weakest connection to the company mission.  If engagement is only fed by this level of meaning productivity will be at or below average.  Unfortunately many business cultures do not evolve beyond this point and leadership is left wondering why performance is average.

Intellectual Meaning in Engineering Work

As a knowledge based profession, meaning in engineering work can be derived at an intellectual level supplying a stronger level of drive.  The intellectual level meaning encompasses: curiosity, self learning & intellectual growth, professional development, working with experts (ie. by doing this work I have the opportunity to receive mentoring from a role model in the work place), receiving mentoring, exploration of a field of knowledge, discovery in a field of knowledge, career advancement in a specialty, and advancing knowledge in a field of knowledge.  Working at this layer provides for a stronger level of connection to the company mission especially for businesses that compete based on knowledge.   Engagement at this level of meaning can fuel productivity at or higher than average.  This level of meaning often sustains research labs, universities, and early the early stages of an engineer’s career.  Mid career stagnation occurs when engineers reach a point where they feel they are no longer developing in a specialty.

Emotional Meaning in Engineering Work

Meaning in engineering work can be derived at an emotional level fuelling a very strong level of drive if managed correctly.   The emotional level meaning encompasses: new & exciting work, winning & success, pride in outcome, professional accolades / awards, creation of something new, being part of an exciting team, increased self-esteem, cool new technologies, feeling of accomplishment, passion, an amazing experience, fame, overcoming a big obstacle, or solving a difficult problem.   Meaning in work at this level provides for an emotional connection to the company mission.  Engagement at this level of meaning results in higher than average productivity.  Continuous delivery of core products and services lead to reduced emotional meaning in engineering work.   The excitement of a start-up, adjacent market campaign, or new product development can reinvigorate this sense of meaning in work.  The emotional meaning experienced in engineering work is generally something special and can be infrequent depending on the significance of the accomplishment.  They may only be experienced once or twice in a reporting period.   Lower levels of accomplishment such as problem solving or new project assignments can be more regular.

Spiritual Meaning in Engineering Work

The ultimate meaning in engineering work is derived at the spiritual level with the strongest level of drive.   The spiritual level meaning encompasses: social good, solving the world’s problems, helping the disadvantaged (ie. volunteering in developing world), serving one’s country (ie. patriotism), noble cause, religious cause, or establishing an enduring legacy.   Meaning in work at this level provides for a spiritual connection to the company mission.   Engagement at this level of meaning results in the highest possible productivity. Meaning at this level is often a guiding star and therefore long-term in nature.   Businesses with a strong social purpose typically enjoy higher engagement and productivity because engineers are deeply committed to the purpose.   Leaders should therefore seek to define a mission in terms of social purpose wherever possible.

How Can Leadership Harness and Align Meaning in Engineering Work With Business Goals

Unfortunately the larger an organization becomes the higher the possibility becomes greater that each individual is lost in the business and disconnected from the mission.  How can leadership resurface how engineers find meaning in their work and then use this understanding to improve engagement and therefore productivity?

Recruitment is the first area where meaning is critical to consider. Misalignment between individual engineers and the business are often created when new staff are selected. Technical competence and personality are often the primary focus of interviews. Leadership should ensure that new engineers, regardless of career-stage, connect with the mission of the organization and will be satisfied in the meaning they will derive from doing the job. Recruiting staff should describe the mission of the organization and explore how strong candidates perceive the mission of the organization align with their own personal purpose. Recruiting staff should look for the strength of meaning statements in terms of the meaning pyramid, degree of alignment with the mission, and any obvious reasons for concern (eg: moral objection at the extreme).

Work assignment is a key area where individual meaning can be harnessed on a day-to-day basis.  Supervisors should take the time to have 1:1 with each engineer to explore where the individual sees meaning in their work at all levels and then allocate and assign work on an individual basis.   While delivery performance in terms of schedule, cost, and quality remains paramount often declining or poor productivity in engineering can be attributable to insufficient meaning in work.

Performance reviews and the performance management system present opportunities where meaning in engineering work can be explored to improve productivity going forwards.   The performance review is an opportunity for the leader and the engineer to discuss the nature of work assignments.   The discussion should uncover where they see meaning in the current work program.  There is an obligation on each engineer to give this deep consideration before the performance review and put in the necessary preparation to articulate their views during the performance review.  Supervisors should be alert to the statements made and then commit to integrate these in the work plan.   Although the performance review is an opportunity to take the time to explore sources of meaning in work it should not be the only time.  Regular daily or weekly stand-ups, meetings, or “walk-around” present ongoing opportunities to ensure meaning in work is cultivated.

Reward and recognition programs are an area where meaning can be reinforced in conjunction with the work allocation process.  Assigning an individual work where intellectual, emotional, or spiritual meaning can be activated can deliver a win-win for the individual and the business.  Celebration of success also supports a sense of meaning in certain individuals.

Leaders must consider how they communicate the mission and how work connects with the meaning individuals perceive.  Regularly communicating the mission and explaining why the work supports the accomplishment of the mission will sustain productivity.  Integrating a sense of purpose with the mission and constantly reinforcing the connections can sustain engagement and productivity.

These principles must be applied with authenticity, respect, and caution as serious relationship damage can result from their misapplication.  Applied properly and engineering productivity can be dramatically improved.   Future blog posts will explore other aspects of meaning in engineering work and implications in business.