7 Principles to an Effective Engineering Environment

David Hickey

Some companies fail to recognize that the statement "You can't rush good engineers" is just an excuse for a poorly managed engineering environment. Although establishing an engineering environment that directs the efforts of engineers toward the company's objectives is critical to a company's survival, it doesn't always happen.

Engineers spend most of their academic and early professional lives being taught technical fundamentals and applications with little emphasis on developing good management skills. That doesn't mean that engineers cannot become good managers, however. Seven basic management principles can lead to the creation of a healthy engineering environment and turn a highly technical engineer into an effective engineering manager, one motivated to exceed even his or her own expectations.

An effective leader must first have respect for themselves and the individuals that they lead. Dwight D. Eisenhower said "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it."

So What Are the Principles?

  1. Establish Goals and Objectives. The organization's goals and objectives must be challenging, clearly stated, and understood by everyone. Engineers must understand the company's strategic growth and profitability objectives. Engineering managers must outline these objectives in terms of end product specification requirements, cost constraints, timing, and ultimately the performance standards expected from the engineers.

  2. Communicate Clearly and Consistently. The organization must provide an environment for the open flow of information, both top-down and bottom-up, for timely and decisive performance. Engineers must be kept informed of changes in the business environment, market conditions, and competitive challenges; that may have an impact on their projects. In turn, engineers must inform their managers of changes in technology, test results, critical issues, challenges, project costs, and timing so that appropriate decisions can be made.

  3. Create a Motivational Environment. The success of any organization is determined by the integrated performances of its engineers. Since attitude and motivation play a large role in performance, managers must be aware of subtle changes that can have a disruptive impact on the individuals as well as the entire team. Managers must create an atmosphere that encourages and promotes high levels of enthusiasm and self-motivation.

    A good engineer thrives on achievement and recognition and managers must recognize this and provide opportunities for success and recognition through challenging engineering project assignments. Successful managers support and guide their engineers and encourage full participation by following this simple rule of "lead by example, with a sense of urgency, and give the credit to the people". President Ronald Regan said "There is no limit to what a man can do if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

  4. Encourage Novel Ideas and Standardization. Effective engineering managers encourage peer group participation. Why spend valuable time trying to develop or create new ideas if other engineers or groups of engineers may have already discovered and tested the solution? Discourage the "not invented here" syndrome, common to engineers who think that the only good idea is their own. There is nothing wrong with standardizing the good features of your company's proven design success as it often simplifies designs and uses existing inventory. Engineers should also spend time on the manufacturing floor and in the field to enhance awareness of the environments in which their designs must be produced and ultimately function.

  5. Emphasize Achievement. Encourage initiative in your engineers' job performance. Recognize their right to fail, while reminding them that they are rewarded for providing results, not for simply going through the motions. Engineers who take the initiative to put in the extra effort and hours often make the difference between the success and failure of a project and / or introduction of an innovative product ahead of competition. In fact, self-motivated engineers will continue to enhance a design if they are continually inspired to do so.

  6. Establish Accountability Methods. Once project assignments have been made and expectations clearly stated and understood, one of the best methods of establishing accountability and monitoring performance is the implementation of a "Product Development Management System" (PDMS).

    The PDMS is a formal cycle of design reviews centered on a set of design goals and specifications. Each design review is a benchmark where certain design milestones and documents must be reviewed and approved prior to moving to the next phase of the design project. By using the PDMS companies often find that products are released in record time with higher reliability and fewer design modifications.

  7. Plan and Execute. When planning a project, seek involvement from all affected individuals; ensure realistic cost and schedule parameters; analyze risks, and provide for contingencies. Unless projects are well planned, staffing and resources will not be properly coordinated and completion dates won't be realistic. Managers must learn to plan effectively to always have a new project to minimize lag time between projects and maintain the level of motivation.

To maximize engineering productivity and progress, organizations must first practice the above principles and then teach them to prospective engineering managers.