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Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Hi Eng-Tips Forum,

I have considerable engineering experience (BS + MS + PE + 15 years on the job) and have worked for a handful of companies. Recently, I was hired to work for a small company with a relatively new engineering department. Our manager holds a physics degree and is smart. However, he lacks engineering experience and a general understanding of engineering best practices (e.g. engineering documentation, accurate BOMs, Engineering Change Process, design reviews, development process, coordination with other departments, part numbering system, etc.).

In addition, the most respected "engineer" in our small company lacks any sort of degree, but has taken chemistry, physics, calculus and is generally pretty sharp and knowledgeable on our products from her technical support experience. However, she lacks knowledge in engineering best practices (see partial list above) and basic engineering concepts (e.g. single shear vs double shear, fatigue calculations, Free Body Diagrams, Statics, Dynamics, detail drawings, etc.).

Both are respected by the CEO for helping CAD design the products and build the company. Also, they are distantly related to the CEO by six degrees of separation.

Soon after I was hired I wrote the engineering manager an e-mail on some basic systems we should put in-place to organize ourselves (e.g. formal part numbering system, BOM management system, ECO and PDM system) and prepare for growth. Also, I suggested we fully document our products in 3D CAD, as well as the associated engineering documentation and specifications. That was a year ago and nothing has changed...not a single thing!

How can I improve our department without stepping on toes of the engineering manager and the highly respected "engineer" and actually effect change?


RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Short answer; You can't.

Longer answer:
You can't do it without stepping on toes.
You probably can't do it even _with_ stepping on toes.

Obvious questions:
Why were you hired?
What does your job description include?

If. e.g., you were hired to 'clean up the mess', you may not live long enough, even if you are younger than your experience suggests.

If, e.g., you were hired to 'solve a few problems with the product(s)', you may be able to make a tiny bit of progress, but it will be slow and frustrating.

The fact that not a single thing has changed suggests that the entire hierarchy above you believes that not a single thing is wrong. Those in the hierarchy below you will probably have a good deal to say about what is wrong, once you have gained their confidence, if you can do so. They are powerless to change things, of course, and have learned to trust no one, especially newcomers, so don't expect much cooperation until you have demonstrated that you can and will maintain their trust.

You might be able to justify the necessary changes on a purely economic/business basis, and that probably is the only way to force the expenditure of any money, but there are hazards that may not at first be apparent.

Chances are that the company uses an accounting system that systematically hides actual costs, making it near impossible to say what any particular defect in a product actually costs. Chances are that the system evolved this way, and no malice was intended.

However, there is also a fair chance that someone has figured out how to game the accounting system to their advantage, so you may encounter apparently illogical resistance to even giving you access to the data that you might logically need in order to justiy improvements, much less make changes or additions to the system so as to provide better information for your purposes.

There is also a strong possibility that no one there even knows how to effect even the simplest change to the accounting system, that no one person knows how all the modules work together if they do, and that the system users will scream bloody murder if anything changes in their portion of the user interface, which is probably undocumented and grotesque.

Can you get your old job back?

Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Personally my initial reaction was that anybody who puts scare quotes around 'engineer' when that engineer has obviously designed some successful products from go to woe may have a bit of an attitude problem.

I've been dumped into a similar situation twice, and both times my suggestions were at least partially implemented by the time I left. If a 19 year old can persuade a rusted on department to change its business practices I'd have thought an experienced person would be able to find a way.

There are many threads in this and other forums on a similar theme, usually written by bright young things straight from uni. Read them and have a think.

Sadly, and taking the opposite tack to the above, if may be a case of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it', so it may be that there is no real motive to change things.


Greg Locock

New here? Try reading these, they might help FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm?

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Mike, I was oblivious to the mess when I was hired, but I immediately realized the lack of engineering best practices by the end of my first month, when I was told there wasn't a complete and accurate BOM, CAD models, or any associated documentation for the products. I must say, it is painful to watch the dysfunctional operations side of the business crawl along because accurate BOMs and engineering documentation are non-existent.

I hear grumbling below and have come to find that many of the other departments have a general disrespect for the 'engineering' department because we are perceived as not doing much in the way of fixing or innovating (consumed with production support and firing fighting). Also, you're dead-on point about the accounting system; no gaming but it would be impossible to understand the financial impact of defects.

Greg, I can understand your initial reaction given the information in my post. However, some background might help explain the use of "engineer".

A component grinds itself to death well before it should, a certain option has a 70% failure rate in the field, catastrophic failures have nearly injured customers and have the potential to fatally injure the customer, a key operational component is not constrained correctly (inducing slop), vibrations within the operating range of the product deteriorate quality, use modes are complicated and lack documentation requiring intense technical support, products are returned, and I could go on. All this has lead to a technical support department two to three times the size of engineering, among other inefficiencies.

Request to eliminate these issues or improve the product are met with the following logic.

CEO: "If something were wrong I wouldn't have been able to sell as many as I have, right "engineer"? (who's technical opinion I trust the most)
'Engineer': "Yeah, I don't see or have any problems with the product lines."

That's the story of the attitude problem you sense and you've correctly identified the root cause; 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. In this case, that saying depends on who you ask; an engineer or an 'engineer'. To say the least it's a difficult and frustration environment for an experienced engineer. However, I care about the company, like my coworkers, and I want to affect positive change. I'm just at a loss as to how to navigate the waters.


RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Start with money. Find the most expensive on-going money pit product in terms of after-sales, whether that is in terms of warranty or tech support, and fix it properly. Make sure you track the cost benefit analysis.

Do that a few times in two years and people will listen to you. Or else you'll be kicked out, but that seems unlikely.

Setting up a 3 way confrontation isn't going to work, as you've found, as they'll go on the defensive and block you. The best bet would be to work /with/ the 'engineer', not around her.


Greg Locock

New here? Try reading these, they might help FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm?

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

There's a couple of recent threads here


which I can't bear to read again but I'm sure the usual contributors make some salient points.

I'd be the first person to agree that I tend to work /within/ the existing system (except for technical solutions) rather than trying to change the system, therefore my perspective is fairly conservative organisationally. Technically I will push the 'correct' solution up to (and occasionally beyond) the point where I get told to shut up.


Greg Locock

New here? Try reading these, they might help FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm?

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

As engineer of a different domain, my first problem with this kind of situation is an Ethic one.

I cannot work in these conditions (lack of good practice) while engaging my professionnal responsability !

In my field, I cannot close my eyes on problem like this because public casualities can result of it !

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

"As engineer of a different domain, my first problem with this kind of situation is an Ethic one.
I cannot work in these conditions (lack of good practice) while engaging my professionnal responsability !
In my field, I cannot close my eyes on problem like this because public casualities can result of it ! "

That's why it's called the 'Whistleblower's Dilemma'. The combination of a backbone and a conscience can put you on a collision course. Best of luck. Try the professional ethics in engineering forum here.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

GregLocock had some good points.

Have you considered the fact that maybe they are a little intimidated by you and your experience and therefore are reluctant to listen to any of your ideas? I have met "them" many times and pride is usually the culprit. You should be sensitive to the fact that they also know they don't hold an engineering degree. This may be a problem for them in trying to listen to you.

One other I'd like to suggest is a phrase my old English teacher taught us which was "if it is to be, it's up to me". I'm not suggesting you go lone wolf and proceed to act as though you are own boss. However, if there are things you could do that might demonstrate your expertise, that might be the ticket to getting your ideas listened to. These other folks probably are not interested in making themselves or their operation "better". They just want to keep the wheels turning. So if you are able to bring some solutions, actually bring the solution not the idea, then you show them that they actually do a have problem that can be solved. They may be pushing back to you because they don't think any of your ideas will help...once you show them that they do, that might help get more of your ideas listened to.

Eastern United States

"If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death!"
~Code of Hammurabi

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Hi dmech

I can see from your post that you genuinely care about what is or isn't happening and I can sympathise from some of my own similar experiences.
As others have said you need to try and work with these people and try to get them to understand the problems you see.
I've noted a couple of things from your post first one:-

"Soon after I was hired I wrote the engineering manager an e-mail on some basic systems we should put in-place to organize ourselves (e.g. formal part numbering system, BOM management system, ECO and PDM system) and prepare for growth"

A better approach might be to go and discuss the suggestions with him first.

Second one:-

"In addition, the most respected "engineer" in our small company lacks any sort of degree"

If this type of thing comes across when you deal with people face to face then you are in for a long and hard ride.
Listing your qualifications in your post and then pointing out that others don't have a degree gives the impression that only people with degree's are worthy of doing the job which is certainly not the case, all any qualification means that you should be better equipped to do the job and not that you can actually do it.
Some of the greatest engineers never had degrees. Marc Brunel, George Stephenson (was illiterate), Trevithick and many more.


RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Dmech, unless I have misunderstood what you have said, your core problem now is this:


Figure out what you _were_ hired to do, and start doing that.

Your suggestions for product improvement are being misinterpreted as criticism, possibly even as insult. STOP making suggestions, especially by email.

When, and only if, someone asks you for advice on some technical issue, seeing as how you're degreed and all, be generous with your time, help them as much as possible, and >>>let them take any credit that's due<<<. Eventually the word will get around.

Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Unfortunately, you may need to talk with your manager & CEO and ask "What am I doing here if you won't listen to my PROFESSIONAL ENGINEER'S opinion." Clearly state why these item MUST be addressed, and that you may need to leave if the critical ones (e.g., potential harm to the public) is not addressed. It may take you having to threaten to leave before they take you seriously.

I agree that some of the items you've listed will make the business operate more efficiently, but these items need to take the back burner to the safety issues. Your job is harder because you need to teach some of the others in your department basic engineering concepts, but based upon the information you've provided, they should pick things up quick. Ask them if they want to be responsible for hurting or killing someone because they made a mistake that could be easily fixed.

Finally, when it comes to trying to make a change; show the people how change can be good. Try making up 3 fairly complex LEGO structure with about 20 pieces. Get the CEO and other engineers to try an duplicate any of the structures in the following way:
1. All of the pieces are jumbled together (and there are extra pieces) & all they can do is see the finished model
2. Pieces are separated in different compartments, given written instructions on how to assemble, and the only see the finished model
3. As 2, but you give drawings or show steps for assembly of the structures.

I think the examples and showing how they fit in your recommendations on how to make things more efficient may go farther than to tell them that things need to change.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

I had a situation similar to what you described. As a new employee, I was assigned to build up a huge sub-assembly for a marketing demo unit from parts sitting around the parts room. No assembly notes from the previous guy who had left, just a parts list with many errors. Being a diligent engineer, I recorded every assembly step, including design changes which were required to get rid of the jury-rigging evident in the first prototype. (Engineers did all the building. There were no technicians). The additional time it took to record and create this basic assembly instruction made the boss angry. Soon after, I was assigned to design a huge system with motor drives, generators and battery charger. I had designed something similar for a different company. It was an 18 month project requiring 4 engineers. He was angry this time because he wanted all the schematics done in 3 weeks. Oh, and don't use feedback control theory and "fancy words" like that.
It was then I realized I was wasting my valuable time working for a goofy person who is incapable of listening to the experts. After 3 years they still have a huge software problem on wheels which has never been reliable.
Doesn't matter to me; I quit and got a much better job. It's their problem, not mine.
If you quit, they will still be goofy but it'll be their problem, not yours.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

As desertfox says, one of the worst ways of communicating is email. Other bad ways include tattooing and semaphore. Carrier pigeons also suck.

If someone emails me a really gnarly question that I can see might take months to solve to little real value, the first thing I do is get off my fat arse and go and talk to them. Or at least phone them. I think that if you want to re-engineer the business (I hate that phrase) then you need to be talking to people, not emailing them.

All that being said I don't see the situation is hopeless, because the organisation doesn't sound like it is in a death spiral, so positive changes should be received positively so long as you haven't trampled all over people to get the result.


Greg Locock

New here? Try reading these, they might help FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm?

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

How on earth has this company managed all these years without you. Do remember, they have successful products, have been employing people, paying wages and bills, and showing a profit for years, without you. So, as a newcomer you may have to tread a bit lightly, they may not have thought you were their savior when they hired you. I’ve known a number of people who were not college educated engineers, but had plenty of experience and darn good engineering abilities, minds and judgement. I’d do engineering with them any day, and let them do engineering for me. I’ve also known a bunch of engineers with M.S’s. and P.E’s. who I wouldn’t want doing engineering for me. You’re never going to get anyplace with your ideas if you can’t sell them to the people above you and those around and under you. Ask your boss if you can present some ideas which you think would improve the operation. Some of the other depts. which engineering is causing to have difficulties should be your allies. Maybe you have to be the teacher and show them all the merits of what you are suggesting. One step at a time or you’ll overwhelm them. Show them how it improves their operation, saves them time, money and liability and you will likely make believers out of them, but don’t be too pushy to quickly. Use your ideas in your own work efforts; show them how a BOM or written assembly procedure would have saved them that last $1000 service call; show them how this whole group of ongoing problems could be eliminated; be the boss’ best problem solver; by example, one incident at a time, not by force feeding, or certainly not by e-mail.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Whilst Email may be a bad way of communicating in some situations, it does leave a record that can be referred back to. It effectively nips the " I never said that" animal in the bud.
I had a boss like that once who would deny to your face that he said something 20mins earlier, so I started printing up a "Minutes of meeting type document" as soon as I left a meeting with him, saying (Is this what we discussed ?), he would " correct" it and send it back to me. But it did stop that particular trick.

Anyway I know this is off subject so delete it if you must.

You are judged not by what you know, but by what you can do.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Berkshire I agree with you about emails being a record a what was said and I do it all the time but only after I have raised concerns about something face to face with people and its a serious issue.
Sadly there are always people who deny being told anything usually associated with the Non stick Teflon coating they wear over their suits or sloping shoulders syndrome either way you learn which characters you can and can't trust.
So even in this case if all other communications of safety fall on death ears then an email would be appropriate.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Paper trail dosen't matter, we have even had signiture pages for documents, and still they clamed we forged there signitures.

It's not a game, either you work with them, or you'll be out the door.

And maybe this job is not a good fit.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?


I wonder if they would claim the signatures were forged if the issue went to court?

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

I'd agree with you, but documenting some discussions does nobody any real good. Locker rooms are one place this is so. I'd elaborate more, but somebody doesn't agree with me, so I'll stop here.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

It's in the same company in my case, so it our word agenst theres in front of the officers of the company.

They had the better lier.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

My advice is to lead by example, you have the opportunity to set some form organisation using excel sheets to log all the drawings/ documents and revisions. Smart numbering parts good folder practice on the network drive.it tedious to do but it is better than having nothing.

If you are smart you would start filling or the file properties in the CAD model word document excel documents, with things like part numbers, material weight, drawing number, revision number, drawn by checked by checked by approved by and the corresponding date. This meta data will enable you to create a BOMs of the assemblies in the CAD system based of this data. It a ball ache to do but if you show them how it will speed up their day, they will follow. I would do this for every fastener and commercial item. I have seen 500 nuts of same spec been created on a CAD and ERP system because the engineers couldn't find the part in the ERP CAD system. This will lead to things like PDM and ERP system been implemented when budget allows.

I would make the effort to create exploded assembly drawings to show how the components go together add notes for torque requirement thread coating grease, create documents for manufacturing test procedures and quality control

Perhaps allocating some budget to create prototype fixes for the design failures, and showing the fixes to the sale teams, that are getting feedback from customers. Will get you enough to support to do the engineering changes.

I find by making these small "nudges" people will respond to the changes and give you there support and backing, I do warn there may be conflict with some entrenched staff, who don't want to be knocked of their pedestal of power because engineering is taking control away from them.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Hi cranky108

I think its a bit different if its only a internal company meeting.
However if someone accuses you of forging their signature then they are accusing you of fraud, in that situation if it goes to court the accuser has to prove his accusation otherwise he's in deep water, least that's how it works here.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

Thank you for the responses, I greatly appreciate your time and thoughtful comments. The trend I'm seeing in the responses is as follows;
  1. It's rude to "brag" about your education, PE, and experience and they aren't absolutely necessary to perform engineering work.
  2. The best approach is to work with them, prove yourself, and lead by example
  3. E-mail is not a good method of communicating these types of issues, but can be useful for CYA endeavors.
In my OP, I merely provided my education, credential, and experience to provide the reader some background, and to convey that I wasn't some young, idealistic, recent engineering graduate. I've known non-degree, "Mechanical Designers" (a.k.a. mechanically adept CAD jockeys), that have more design sense than some guys/gals that hold bachelors degree, but that has been few and far between and I wouldn't trust them with highly technical engineering tasks (e.g. design a double shear motion stop, since in my case that "engineer" doesn't know what double shear means). Also, I feel some may have missed my subsequent post about the product/production issues we face everyday because of poor "engineering". If 70% failure rates, improperly designed gear trains, complicated use modes, resource sapping production support, and near fatal explosions are good "engineering", please provide our most respected "engineer" an offer they can't refuse (i.e. $175,000 annually should be suitable bait).

I would enjoy the opportunity to lead by example and prove myself. However, the logic I provided between the CEO and "engineer" in my second post leads to zero motivation to improve or redesign the products. For example, since I started (nearly 3 years ago) not a single long-term, tangible, project/product has been successfully released. Hence the lack of respect by the other departments and general feeling that "engineering" doesn't do or fix anything. Simply put, projects are not created nor allocated.

Once again, I greatly appreciate your time and thoughtful comments. I'm going to approach (no e-mails) the engineering manager tomorrow about playing a more significant roll within engineering, and simply ask "How can I best help the company succeed?"

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

How did the meeting with the Engineering Manager go, dmech?

This thread has many facets and is fascinating on many levels: business, product design, product management, sales, engineering management, customer service.

My background: I'm a degreed engineer who has moved out of my degree area (Mech) into a related discipline (Elec), worked for several excellent Fortune 500 companies, started three businesses including an electrical generation systems business, been a partner in a fourth business, and now practice full time as an EE for a highly respected global consumer goods company.

This is fundamentally a challenge of universes: (1)Your universe as an engineer and the things that are very real within that realm and (2)The universes of the people who launched and grew the company and manage it today. Your best bet is to start with what's real to the people you're working with. You have to build a communication line to them strong enough to handle the topics you're trying to bring up along with all the seemingly inevitable baggage and complexities that come with them. An excellent place to start is to ask yourself "What is their viewpoint?" It's important to work with what you actually know about their viewpoint as opposed to dubbing in ideas based on your frustrations, gossip, or other extraneous elements. Also find out candidly (not critically) what their reality is. Doing this, you can find out two very important things about the people you're working with:

1. What is important to them and motivates them.
2. What are their biggest problems, IN THEIR ESTIMATION?

Hopefully, the meeting with the Engineering Manager has helped you to clarify your role with respect to solving their problems rather than your problems or the problems that the blue-collar guys grumble about. The management team are presumably in their current positions because they have demonstrated that they can identify the most important problems and resolve them. The CEO vignette given shows that the CEO is still expecting the Technical Designer person to help them identify and evaluate technical problems. A CEO deferring to a trusted deputy is not unusual or inappropriate.

Over the years, I've found that the biggest workplace challenge we engineers have stems from the very things that make us valuable as engineers. We think very logically; we evaluate information and discard extraneous factors; we tend to be dispassionate in our evaluations and decision making; we have tremendous personal discipline and approach things systematically; we tend to have a well-developed vocabulary; we have a highly specialized vocabulary; we tend to try to make decisions objectively and favor data over opinion; we are very detail-oriented. For better or for worse, many of these fine attributes run counter to what other professionals consider to be desirable modes of acting.

Here's an example: A CEO survives by rapidly digesting an enormous amount of information and situations and directing most of the organization's activities at arm's length. He has incredible demands on his time and his discretionary time is very limited. He usually has to make decisions with incomplete information. His ability to cope with these sub-optimal situations are what make him a good CEO, but that doesn't mean he thinks it's an ideal way to run a company. It also doesn't mean he's ignorant of how things could be better; he simply doesn't have the luxury of sitting in a corner analyzing a situation because three things will go neglected while he's focusing on the first one. If he's good, he can manage all of these disparate demands and move things generally forward. An engineer who comes to a CEO with time-absorbing detail will find his audience's attention drifting off to more immediate things. When you speak to a CEO, it's most effective to put on your CEO hat and assume the viewpoint of a CEO. The best organizations--especially growing ones--are headed by a few desperate individuals who are working their butts off to make things go right. If you understand and appreciate the daily life of the CEO and talk to him as a CEO (rather than talking to him as a guy who should understand and value engineering at a highly refined professional level but doesn't), then you will find a willing partner in the discussion. Cultivated and cared for skillfully, this partnership can then grow into a partnership at the organizational and business level. This applies to everyone from CEO to janitor.

So assume the viewpoint of the person whose cooperation you're seeking and operate from their viewpoint and their reality. Find out what their main problems are, pick the biggest one you are capable of solving quickly, and slam dunk it. Doing this a few times, you will establish yourself as someone who can identify and resolve the company's problems. Gaining trust this way, you will soon be able to take on more complex projects that take more time and company resources.

A couple more fundamentals to help move things in a positive direction:

Once you have moved into and are operating in their CEO or Engineering Manager or Customer Service universe, you can establish some of your Engineer universe there. Put in things they can immediately see that are of value and your services will soon be in very high demand!

The fundamental here is "Solve their problems, not yours". Solving the right problems buys everyone time to talk about the next problems to take on.


RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?


Very well put, I greatly enjoyed reading your post and think it is by far the best advice provided given the situation. I will definitely digest and use your advice as best I can.

The meeting went fine and I was given a pretty cool and innovative project. It's been difficult to get anything done on the new project with the amount of production support, customer issues, and other regular and frequent problems because of the aforementioned issues, but at least the new project is a step in the right direction. Someone from one of the other departments recently asked the CEO if one of our most troublesome product lines would be redesigned soon and the CEO said "No, do you know how many we sell?" I don't disagree totally, but the market is passing us by on quality and new features as we stick to our guns, and our sales growth is stale if not tapering off slowly quarter-by-quarter.

In time I suppose.

RE: Engineering Department Woes...What to do?

I've seen people say "they have successful products" more than once, and it bothers me. The point the OP was making is that they are not, in fact, successful products. They are cobbled together by people who lack a fundamental understanding of the bigger picture, and as a result they are products which have made the company money but are not reliable, safe, or sustainable.

So, let's stop saying "they obviously make successful products." Because what they've really done is successfully sold crap to oblivious customers, and wasted a shload of money on continued support for those products thanks to all the inherent problems which could have (and should have) been avoided initially.

I don't know if it's a job worth keeping, to be honest. I would recommend updating your resume and going someplace better, where your skills and energy are more appreciated / valuable.

Do you care? Yes. That's obvious. But trying to save a sinking ship may be misplaced energy.

Experience: accumulated knowledge over time.

Talent: the ability to use experience.

Which is more valuable?

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