99 is a Failing Grade and the Limits of Engineering Authority

Posted: June 29, 2011 in Engineering, Management
Tags: , , ,

Earlier I wrote about the need to instill certain core values into new college graduates, NCG’s. It is often during the training review that issues related to core values and expectations show up and where the initial reset occurs. One common issue is the belief that 99 is an A+. IN terns of the NCG, this has been the case for years. Consider a typical college engineering class project. A semiconductor design class might involve the design and physical layout of a small circuit. This must be done within class time constraints. The project will get reviewed to make sure the student understands the basic ideas. Small errors and deviations will be tolerated since time was limited and the student got the main point of the exercise. The business world is different and this is one of several places where expectations must be reset in the mind of the NCG.

To even get to the point of being able to reset expectations, without having prior corporate financial damage done, requires a well designed training program and, in particular, a well chosen training project. The project must be able to be completed in the training timeframe (5 to 7 weeks is a good range) but with some carefully chosen exceptions. In the past I have used an 8 bit register design project with specifications that were mostly easy to meet but with a few challenges. I will reference this project in several future posts since it has proven excellent at bringing out several common NCG issues.

Today’s topic involves meeting all, and I mean ALL, design targets. As the trainee chugs along through his design, most tasks come to completion in a straightforward fashion. He begins to feel that the main point is to show competency with the tools and that is certainly one point of the training exercise. However, there is typically one spec, be it speed or input levels, which is difficult to meet. OK, it isn’t doable for the average NCG. What I will describe next is a surprisingly common occurrence. During the review the NCG explains that he did his best and it’s close to spec. He explains that he met all other targets. The others in the room lower their heads. They know I am about to go on a rant. I start by giving an example of something most NCG’s can understand – buying that first new car. I ask him to imaging getting a new Accord, driving up to a stop sign, and finding out that the car won’t stop. He uses the hand brake to limp back to the dealer where he is surprised to find that the dealer thinks he should be happy. You see, the car is 99.9% perfect. The radio is fine, as are the seats, the engine and the environmental controls. The only issue is a bad seal in the brake system master cylinder. This is an A+ car! I then explain that just like he wouldn’t be happy with that car, our customers won’t be happy with our parts if they are only 99.9% correct. Consider a chip involved in routing data. If only 0.01% of the data gets corrupted, that’s a disaster. The only acceptable grade is 100.

If you have been following my bog (of course you have – right?), you might be thinking I am contradicting myself. Didn’t I say it was about just being good enough? I did and I still do. Read that older post carefully. It mentioned that quality is meeting customer expectations and needs. I wasn’t saying you could fail to meet the requirements. I said great engineering involved deeply understanding what the requirements really are and meeting them in a cost effective manner rather than brute force over engineering.

There are several other topics related to 99 being a failing grade and the training review scenario I have described above. I want to save some of these for later posts so they get their full due. However, I want to touch on the limits of engineering authority. Every now and then, and less than I would like to see, an NCG trainee circumvents my standard way of being able to relate the new car story and my ability to make the point that 99 is a failing grade. He does this in a very simple way. He discusses his inability to meet the target specification with his training supervisor and the supervisor tells him that the present performance is good enough. That is equivalent to getting marketing to change the target datasheet. For the majority of trainees that have not gotten this special dispensation, there is a second lesson, in addition to 99 being a failing grade, that they need to understand. They have exceeded their authority. In the real world, a company will put its name on the parts they design. Organizations will count on them. The company must be confident that changes, even if necessary, will only be done out in the open and with agreement from the corporate parties responsible for setting design targets. Working in partnership with others in the company is an important core value. It is important that we all know what our charters are and what they aren’t. That doesn’t mean being sheep. It does mean bringing issues out into the open and being part of the solution. For most reading this post my comments will sound obvious. To many NCG’s they aren’t.

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Comments
  1. DaveK says:

    Paul, you didn’t use that car analogy on me – as I recall, it was a bit more colorful and exotic than that. And I haven’t yet forgot the lesson. Heck, getting first silicon back on my first logic part – the base gate array for the one you used later as the training vehicle (with some spec tweaks), was plenty humbling and taught me the limits of what extracted parasitic simulation can and can’t do. And I still enjoy using the mental tools you taught me on the bloody X-array to boggle the minds of design engineers new and old by finding parasitic bipolars lurking under the silicon surface where they never thought possible. Good fun.

    Dave

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