Sunday, May 3, 2015

Engineers vs. Normal Human Beings

Malcolm Gladwell writes about auto recalls, engineers and non-engineers, including an interview with an engineer from the Ford recall office who handled the Pinto case.  Here is a description of the Toyota sticky accelerator situation:
In the wake of the sticky-pedal problem, customers started complaining that Toyotas were prone to sudden, unintended acceleration. “Whenever someone called in to say, ‘I’ve had an episode of unintended acceleration,’ Toyota would dispatch a team of engineers,” said Roger Martin, a former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a member of the advisory panel that Toyota put together during the crisis. “And they would do a thorough examination of the car and pronounce it fine—because it always was—and assure the owner that everything was going to be fine. They were probably just pressing the accelerator when they thought they were pressing the brake. There wasn’t a problem. Just be more careful next time. And they got more and more complaints.”
The engineers were right. A series of exhaustive investigations by federal regulators, with help from NASA engineers, established that the perception of an electronic failure was almost certainly illusory. The problem was caused either by the fact that some people put in poorly fitted, nonstandard floor mats or by the fact that drivers were pressing the accelerator thinking that it was the brake. (Pedal error, as it is known, is a well-documented source of vehicle malfunction, affecting drivers of many makes and models.) Cars are engineered to be tolerant of pedal error: the driver who depresses the accelerator, thinking it’s the brake, still has the option of simply putting the car in neutral or turning it off. (That’s one of the reasons that cars have gearshifts and ignition switches.) But in the public mind a car that accelerated unexpectedly was broken. The teams of engineers that Toyota sent out didn’t make the problem better. They made it worse.
“The Toyota guy explained this to the panel,” Martin went on. “He said, ‘Here’s our process.’ So I said to him, ‘What do you imagine the people are thinking? They’re shaking like a leaf at the side of the road and after that whole experience they are told, “The car’s fine. Chill out. Don’t make mistakes anymore.” Of course they are not going to be happy. These people are scared. What if instead you sent people out who could be genuinely empathetic? What if you said, “We’re sorry this happened. What we’re worried about is your comfort and your confidence and your safety. We’re going to check your car. If you’re just scared of this car, we’ll take it back and give you another, because your feeling of confidence matters more than anything else.” ’ It was a sort of revelation. He wasn’t a dumb guy. He was an engineer. He only thought about doing things from an engineer’s standpoint. They changed what those teams did, and they started getting love letters from people.”
I have long classified people into two groups, engineers and salesmen.  In this system, engineers like to deal with numbers, and don't really like interacting with people.  Salesmen, on the other hand, love dealing with, and manipulating people, are narrative-based, and generally disregard or don't understand numbers (a third, much scarier category is people who understand numbers, think like an engineer, but deal with people and sell like a salesman. I would probably classify those folks as sociopaths).  It is simplistic and over-generalizing, but if you were to ask my opinion of a person, I would have probably already classified the individual as engineer or salesman (and there is some projection on my part).  Gladwell uses some of the same types of classifications in this article, but instead of salesmen, he looks at politicians (who are generally selling themselves and policies).

The article also touches on the human influences and politics that impact whether recalls are made, or even if some of the issues get brought up for discussion.  This really is a challenge when it comes to quality and rework decisions.  There are a lot of times I get stuck making a decision about whether to correct some imperfection on a product, and those calls can be tough to make sometimes.  When it is about aesthetics, I'm probably not the person to ask, but when it is about safety or function, I'm much better.  However, I often find myself weighing whether the slight risk of failure justifies causing a large amount of rework.  On this, I have a hard time making sure I don't get talked out of my initial judgment, as I weigh the decision.  Luckily, most of the guys on the shop floor know I'm not out to make their lives difficult, and they'll accept the call when they have to fix something.  Overall, engineers do have to make a lot of judgments about acceptable risks, and while they are sometimes wrong, they generally are correct, even if it doesn't seem like it to the rest of society.  Often, when companies make a bad call on safety issues, it is bean-counters or managers overruling engineers because they don't want to address the costs.  Sometimes, it is engineers not understanding human emotions or politics.

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