Are you blind to detail? Source Wikipedia Ishihara diagram
"It's just a minor detail" is a commonly-enough heard phrase, with only two problems: the words "just" and "minor." Take those two belittling extraneous modifiers out and say it again: "It's a detail."
Often enough, putting a concept or even prototypes together is the easiest (and the most fun) part of a project. The main parameters are in place; detail is "the rest" required so that something that vaguely resembles a manufacturable, saleable product results. It's those unknowns that need pondering, the "not quite rights" that need purging.
Put romantically, not just devils but angels, cherubim, seraphim, orcs, gremlins and all sorts of other critters reside in detail. They battle continuously to make or break your product, whatever that might be. Wrong material or tempering grade? It'll deform too soon, or just snap - if you're lucky at the prototype stage. You got your tolerances wrong? They'll bite you within three months of start of production, on a Friday afternoon before Christmas. Overspecified things to be on the safe side? Your product might be unfeasible to make, or too expensive. When you get the details right, however, that product can go out there and do what it's supposed to do - satisfy customers and make money.
So, we "just" need to get them right.
The first thing to realise is that there are no "hero" details. Every item on a drawing or in a specification can lead to something going wrong, and every item that is not there can, too.
Picking your way through the thicket requires concentration, discipline and focus, namely the three things that are almost impossible to come by in a normal working environment.
So, alongside placing the spotlight on details, this post looks at how and when to work on details.
Without thinking, problems don't go away. Without doing, they don't go away. Normally, one of those activities preceeds the other...
One key way is thinking solo: giving yourself the time, room and environment to think. Daydreaming is often for me the best way of filtering out my surrounds and letting ideas or understanding drift into my conscious view, when I'm least expecting them. Then I at least know what I need to work on. Then it's a case of separating myself from the others and going somewhere quiet to focus on something.
Brainstorming with colleagues is another method - call a guerilla meeting, half an hour over a coffee, just before lunch to ensure the meeting finishes on time; longer-scheduled DFMEAs is another good way of at least discovering what needs to be determined and proven before a product hits the scrap bin more often than the "goods out" one.
There's a key difference between the solo and the team thinking methods: thinking is often misconstrued as "not doing anything" whereas a team meeting is by default acceptable, no matter how inefficient. Let's have a look at solo thinking, then.
Or rather, look away - solo thinking is by and large impossible where I work and, I suspect, where you work, too.
We have an office with around ten people packed into around twenty square metres. It's not a sweatshop, but it is an open shop. Generally, whenever I need to get any quality thinking done, there will be others gossiping, discussing the price of petrol, mortgages, coffee (in fact, they are always talking about the price of something). Then an empty skip lorry will race past the windows, chains flailing and rattling, simply making an almighty racket. It is simply not possible to concentrate.
So I try to escape.
I go off and make a coffee. Or I'll go for a wander to the labs, but not actually get there. I'll saunter nonchalantly down to a meeting room without any meeting planned or find an unoccupied office, sit down and open up the one thing that I want to be working on at that moment.
I turn off Outlook
I leave the phone on silent and on its charging station so that it doesn't vibrate.
I shut down my browsers.
Then I load them up again (I nearly always need them for research and many of our documents are online). Browsers are a huge distraction or temptaion, but I find that if I'm really focussed I forget to browse the news or check my private emails or Google+.
Sometimes I'll uncap my fountain pen and start sketching, or I break open Excel and start working on tolerance calculations, O-ring compression sets; or I'll start searching the internet for the one key factor that I need to define what I'm working on.
In any case, I have to admit, my task-focussed multimedia shut-down strategy can be a tad one-sided. I often need to call somebody - a colleague or a supplier - for an insight on a particular detail. Or I'll send them an email. And I disrupt their work in the process.
So I can do detail - but, like drawings, I can admire detail but I don't necessarily enjoy it; I can occasionally lose myself in detail work, but in the same way that I am slightly colourblind, I don't see detail like a real clear-headed, focussed checker can. Working on the details of a design is often an effort that is sometimes too much and ends up in frustration. I'm not your stereotypical engineering bureaucrat who will gladly and with a sense of achievement check every last entry on a drawing or bill of materials. I'm not naturally a detail person; but others are and that's why we should work together. It's what teams are for.
Jobs I could not do because of this:
- teacher marking exams (= engineer marking PPAPs)
- lawyer (=engineer getting involved in patents)
- customs administrator (= engineer and his paperwork (= engineer))
- forensic scientist (= engineer working on quality complaints)
- politician (= engineer trying to get all parties on board)
Oh. I am all of those.