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9 Industrial Engineering Principles You Can Apply to Your Life

All fields of engineering are not only valuable but interesting. However, Industrial Engineering is perhaps the least understood. It’s never quite clear what one does. It’s an essential field that glues it all together, kind of like a liaison between engineering fields, business, and life. Most importantly, Industrial Engineering has many skills that you can directly apply to your life without getting too technical and can serve as guiding principles. Let’s explore these 9 Industrial Engineering principles:

1. Seek continuous improvement.

The only constant is change. While Industrial Engineers aim to standardize, what they truly seek is improvement. Continuous improvement is a process—so instead of imagining a linear cause and effect (if I do this, then this happens), think of it more like a cycle, like incremental and circular improvements rather than breakthroughs. And how do you begin such a cycle? By identifying an area in need or a problem, developing a plan, implementing your plan, and checking how you did. Some call this Kaizen, others PDCA or Plan-Do-Check-Act.

As opposed to more rigorous problem solving, continuous improvement is more of a philosophy that aims to normalize the surfacing of problems. In other words, the purpose is to view problems as opportunities to fix. Instead of hiding, ignoring, or covering a problem up to avoid some sort of consequence, continuous improvement encourages people to open up about these problems, to solve them and learn from them.

This is especially true in life. Don’t we often want to wish our problems away? Professionals/managers are often too proud to admit a mistake, indirectly promoting a culture of power and fear. Instead, we can embrace continuous improvement by not ignoring problems, concerns, and distractions, and taking action to solve them. In organizations as in families, it’s better to foster a safe and trustworthy environment where members can freely communicate issues rather than hide them for fear of backlash.

2. Keep a systemic mindset.

We’re awful at thinking in terms of systems. Our minds want to see clear linear relationships between point A and point B. However, we live in a world surrounded by complexity. A systemic mindset is one that looks at the interactions between the parts (and their function or purpose) rather than the parts themselves. Why? Because it’s in these interactions/interfaces where most of the problems originate. Why is knowing this helpful? Because “modernity” is all about specialization, and we forget that problems seldom happen in our own bubble. Systemic thinking is recognizing everything is interconnected.

For instance, in medicine, an infectious disease specialist (ID) prescribing a series of antibiotics to treat or prevent an infection needs to additionally make sure that such antibiotics won’t negatively interact with other drugs. Disregarding systems would lead the doctor to focus exclusively in their area. Instead, the ID works closely with an ID pharmacist (and others) to scrutinize the patient’s drug history. Or consider a government policy banning plastic bags that unintentionally leads to people buying more at the grocery store instead of reusing the plastic bags for the garbage. Perhaps better is a law to force all plastic bags to be bio-degradable along with other measures.

A systemic mindset has a condition though. Like our lungs need oxygen, systemic thinking needs boundaries. We need to be precise in scoping our project, and in adequately defining our system. This way, we can dive deep into the interrelationships, their functions, and their potential failures. Systems are ever changing. You can try to optimize some aspect of the system, but could negatively affect another one. Complex systems behave in erratic, unpredictable ways. They are always changing and evolving, and their response is delayed. Knowing this gives you the opportunity to focus on long-term solutions.

3. Strive to create value.

Striving to create value is a fundamental principle in Industrial Engineering. It is what this branch of engineering is all about: gathering resources, interconnected processes, and people to transform them into something of value to the customer. And what is value? Value is solving other people’s problems, reducing or eliminating human annoyances, in short, making life easier.

How do you make life easier? You can reduce some of their waste/costs, prevent future problems, and solve inconveniences. Value is not only added by creating but by avoiding spending unnecessary energy, time, and resources. Industrial Engineers will often scrutinize processes, inputs and outputs, and conduct the “5S” methodology which aims to organize the workplace in such a way that avoids theft, losses, tool misplacement, accidents, loss of time, etc. How specifically is your product or your service helping someone? In life, the more you reduce waste, the more value you retain.

4. Mind marketing.

Marketing is misunderstood. It is not promotion. It’s not logos, branding, ads or social media presence. Marketing is a fundamental part of a product or service design. It is how the entirety of your product will interact with the customer. Industrial engineers and yourself must consider how the product will satisfy the customer’s needs, how it’ll be experienced, what the product support will be like, and the overall perception. From the supplier to the end customer, marketing is making sure the product is designed to create an experience worth spreading. Hype is temporary, but experiences stick around.

Just like life, think about it as a story. What story would you want to be told? The product must be designed and built to produce that experience. Beyond functionality, you must find out how the customer will feel identified with the brand and with the service both during and after the transaction. Was their need met, and how did they feel? If your customer loved it and wants to recommend you, then you’re on the right track.

Marketing can be difficult. Most people spend a disproportionate amount of time figuring out how they want their product to look like (brand name, logo). Instead ask, what problem can my product solve? What specific unmet needs can it fulfill? How do you want the product or service to make your customer feel? What experience are you looking for? And most importantly, why will the user want to share and talk about it?

5. Embrace the design.

Embracing the design is about taking the design phase of projects seriously. Not just another step, but a fundamental step. Modernity has us convinced to jump right to action. To fix as you go. To be firefighters and heroes. That is not only costly, but absurd. Process design and engineering is simply aiming to anticipate problems in a timely fashion: ahead of additional costs, ahead of defects, and especially ahead of complaints or returns/recalls. Summed up, design is the best way we can tackle what we don’t know that we don’t know. What do I mean?

Before a product or service is out, it pays off to work on a prototype or mockup, to test the product, etc. Consider Product Validation Engineering or PVE. This field is concerned that the product meets the specifications that it was designed for. Does it meet the quality, requirements, and safety? And how can we test to validate this? Will the product be serviceable, reliable, ergonomic, and user-friendly?

The design process begins (as we saw with marketing) by identifying the needs. Secondly, by getting a strong understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve. Then coming up with possible solutions and narrowing down to the best solutions. Then you create a prototype and test it. A responsible design process is one that has tested the product for hundreds, even thousands of hours before it’s out on the market. The key is to anticipate problems before the customer does or before it becomes too costly to fix. Once you find out such improvements, they can be implemented by redesigning the product or service as needed.

There’s many things to consider when designing a product or service. Even how manufacturable or easy to assemble your product will be. Design is not just appearance, but fundamentally how the product or service will interact with assembly, maintenance, and customers. We certainly don’t roam around alone. Our challenges and opportunities arise from our interactions with others. To design a better life means to pause to think where you could change a bothersome situation and design it out through better habits. To design is to bring clarity about how precisely you will plan, test, and prepare to do something that’s worthwhile.

6. Seek problem solving.

In Industrial engineering, problem solving is rigorous. To seek problem solving is not firefighting, nor being or appearing to be busy. Problem solving is not coming up with hasty solutions or thinking that you or someone else already knows what the problem really is. To seek problem solving is to treat the problem with respect and go through the necessary steps to identify the problem without jumping to conclusions.

In the 8-step problem solving methodology, the first and second steps are to clarify the problem and to break down the problem. Those two steps are the most challenging because everyone tries to jump straight to step 4 and explain the “root cause”. Clarifying the problem is not clarifying the cause of the problem. That’s the key.

And where could we find problems and their causes when superficially everything looks fine? Kaoru Ishikawa was a Japanese quality guru that created a fish-looking diagram that breaks down a problem into six potential branches to look for potential causes: Manpower, Machine, Measurements, Materials, Methods, and Mother Nature. There are several problems solving methodologies like Six-sigma, DMAIC, FMEA, Shainin Red X, A3, and all sorts of “impressive” sounding names. But it all stems from the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. The difference is in the rigor between identifying the problem and not jumping to conclusions of the root cause, and implementing solutions.

I personally find that in life, whether it be companies or people, we tend towards complexity. We are wowed by more gadgets and more features, but I believe that we should all aim towards simplicity. Problem Solving should help in the quest to achieve more with less. More features and more complexity means more potential for unnecessary problems and annoying products. Consider the simplicity of the iPhone vs the once trending Blackberry.

7. Focus on potential risks.

Risk management may be one of the most important areas within Industrial Engineering. And risk management has one main goal: risk mitigation. When it comes to risk, consider two different things: it’s Severity, and its likelihood to Occur. It’s irresponsible, and yet common practice that just because the likelihood to occur is very low, it gets dismissed, or worse, to wish it away. Hope is a terrible strategy. The higher the severity of the effect, the stronger we should consider it regardless of its potential to happen.

In engineering as in life, to believe or hope that a risk won’t happen is a recipe for disaster. So seek to design out (Poka-yoke) as many risks as you can foresee. Take risks seriously. Be prepared in the event a problem does indeed happen. How do we do this? There are known and unknown risks. For the known risks, you can dive right into rigorous problem solving to find the root cause and mitigate the risk. For the unknown risks, you rely on systemic thinking, and come up with foreseeable ways a risk could occur. Then test for it and mitigate it.

In life, we have built-in testing we take for granted. Religion has “fasting” to keep us healthy. In relationships, we have “dating” before we commit to formal marriage. For start-up companies we have “market validation” before we invest heavily. In finance we have “credit scores” and “down-payments” before big loan commitments. When we skip the process, we get exposed to the risks. Testing is your ally, preparation your best tool.

8. Consider the artisanal.

Industrial engineering is not concerned exclusively, as the name implies, with industrialism. It’s not just about mass production, producing cheaply, reliably, and in a standardized fashion. It’s especially about creating a product or service that is: unique, artisanal, and delightful. We can honor the imperfect yet remarkable and satisfying. Imperfect doesn’t mean defective or subpar. Imperfect means the artisanal has variability, but it is precisely thatwell executed but variable product or servicethat makes it exclusive and attractive.

Consider craft beer or the wine industry. No one single truly artisanal batch can be the same. For barrel-aged beers, every barrel brings its own unique character. Both when we’re innovating or simply creating something exceptional, the artisanal reminds us to embrace uncertainty. But how can we embrace uncertainty and yet anticipate risks? The batches should be kept small. Experiment small and slowly scale up as you fine tune your craft.

Sometimes the results may not be what we expected, but we’re also rewarded with something truly remarkable. I believe the world has been heading back to the local, artisanal, and organic. We want our TVs, phones, cars and airplanes to be invariable, safe, and reliable, but we also want to be delighted with carefully crafted and surprising movies, music, and food to name a few. The truth is that both the artisanal and the industrial can happily coexist! It’s not about choosing one or the other, but recognizing each has its place.

9. Prioritize team work.

And finally, Industrial Engineering recognizes that true value lies in collaboration. Everyone praises the lone genius, but everything long-lasting comes from the collective work and power of humanity. We all build off of someone else’s work. And yet, we still spend a huge part of our life in school studying for the most part alone, and testing individually. Graduating is an individual effort. But is it? Getting hired seems to also be an individual effort, but you’re only successful if you prove you can be of help “to others.”

The challenge is to avoid the hero and to promote team work instead. Don’t expect yourself or others to know everything. Don’t be a lone wolf or be an old expert who refuses to see new perspectives. Team work is about humility. Sure, there’s always going to be different levels of experience and gaps in knowledge, and that’s why we need to prioritize mentoring. I like to think of it as ongoing apprenticeship.

The school system was created to get us prepared for the job force, but that’s changed. Schooling provides a head start, but true education lasts a lifetime. When we’re done with school, we’re just starting. And we need organizations to pick up where school left off with the right coaching, training, and facilitation. Not the quick job-shadowing, or the shallow induction training, but real long-term serious apprenticeship. I’d be willing to bet that if organizations committed to people’s long term learning, especially in a personal manner, (not just sending someone to resume-building seminars or courses) that people would stick around longer, and team work would flourish.

I hope that these 9 Industrial Engineering principles you can apply to your life inspired you at the very least with an interesting idea, or that you learned a new concept, or gave you some benefit.  Here are some final questions to keep in mind:

  1. How am I reinventing myself? How am I adopting a continuous improvement mindset? Am I allowing problems to surface and addressing them, or am I hiding them?
  2. Am I thinking systemically? Do I consider how I impact other areas in what I do? Am I even considering other areas?
  3. Am I clear specifically how I’m improving someone else’s life? Where exactly do I add value?
  4. Do I present myself, my ideas, and my products or services in a compelling way? Do I communicate precisely how a need will be fulfilled and experienced? And most importantly, why will customers be compelled to share it?
  5. Am I putting my ideas and work to the test before going bigger? How can I be assured to find the areas that would need to improve?
  6. If I encounter a difficult problem, how will I approach it rigorously? Am I clearly identifying what the problem is and finding out what the root cause is?
  7. Do I consider risks? Do I think about potential and severe outcomes and have a plan to address them?
  8. Am I honing my products or services to be unique and delightful?
  9. Am I being a team player? Am I teaching and learning? And how am I making my growth and others’ exciting?

Juan F. Diaz

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