Saturday, August 24, 2013

Process thinking

I once worked in a place where things would often go wrong, and the question on the boss's lips would be "Who...?" as in "who did this?" "who was in charge of this..." so that the person would be in trouble and presumably the problem would go away.  
Engineering processes
As an engineer, I found this to be the most puzzling thing.  Why waste your time on such an irrelevant question as "who"?
Because the more important thing should be maybe "what" happened, and then "why" it happened, and then "why" that happened, and in that case you find yourself with the "root cause" which you can fix (along with the team, the who's that run the process) and then hopefully that issue would not crop up again.
Good engineers are lazy
 Along with the inclination to abuse the "stupid employees" was this baffling habit of designing stupid processes, ones that put a great deal of strain on the boss and the people, and that relied more on hard work than on intelligence, and still produced a high error rate in the results.
I think the missing knowledge was of something called Process Thinking.  Process thinking is important.  It will make you calmer, and make your work many times easier and your results a lot better.
Individual and society
So too in my country in Africa, we think relationships are key to everything.  In the name of basic relationships (what does my wife or my father think of me is the familiar question) we have institutionalized actions that harm self and harm the larger population too.
We think in small groups (I better pass my neighbour, God give me promotion) but ignore the self (does this make ME happy, can I sleep at night?) and ignore the whole too (is this the right thing to do, does it hurt somebody else?)
This mindset is understandable because we've come so recently from small worlds - small village, small ethnicity, small clan - but in the current world we all see that it doesn't produce very good outcomes.  Individuals are frustrated and the country is poor.  Working harder may not solve the problem.  Defeating your neighbour, "feeling rich", getting promoted, "achieving success" may not be the answer. 
Engineering systems
Even on the political front, have some not tried to solve our misidentified "leadership problem" by replacing people?  But we come to the realization that no, we must re-engineer systems instead.  We must fix a risk-reward system at the individual, group, and institutional level.  This is to say, we might think of a country or an economy as an abstract thing, or as an organism, or as a machine, in order to repair it. 
School for intelligence
This is why I respect a good engineering education.  It's one of those things that (hopefully) prepares you to understand systems (like the human body, the global economy, or the market for films) and processes (like the workflow at a branch office, the election of a president, the Arab spring).
a sketch of a helicopter by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago
A decade ago, I read that engineering was "the new liberal arts" degree. Along with whatever specific facts and knowledge it might give a student, it would develop his/her critical thinking, systems understanding, process thinking, and design ability.  Then also it should broaden knowledge of the world and importantly of self.  It is a good training for an uncertain job title in an interesting life. 
Cartoon showing laziness as the mama of invention
 Links for more learning
Lazy engineers: Unusual habits of good engineers
Process Thinking: It can make you happier at work and at home
Policy analysis: The Nigerian subsidy example, The technocracy example

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