Look At The Big Picture

08 Aug

One of the most important attributes of engineering thinking is to place things in perspective. Systems engineers, in particular, stand back and look at the overall manner in which the various major components of a system interact. They are concerned with ensuring, all things considered, that the system achieves the desired result (output), and that it is achieved efficiently (output versus cost).

An example will clarify this point. Many people are rightly concerned with the plight of the less fortunate. However, those who are taught that compassion is defined by how one feels (input), rather than the results achieved (output), are missing the big picture.

Certain celebrities, for example, will donate their efforts to raising large sums of money for charitable causes. The donation of time and talent is wonderful, of course, but it is only an input (dollars collected). What is the output? It may seem churlish to say, but if no effort is made to measure the output, and in particular the output/input (efficiency of how the money is used), then it could be that the effort spent is inefficient, wasted, or even worse, counterproductive (bad output).

Although those involved in the effort may feel good, such feelings sadly miss the point of a charitable undertaking. Charity is not about making the giver feel good, or to be congratulated and applauded by friends and admirers, it is about achieving a positive and efficient outcome, even if done anonymously.

To determine the output would require some follow-up work, to see what the dollars raised actually accomplished. But sometimes those who raise the money show up for the fundraiser and then disappear (although they may return the next year to do it again). You may hear them talk about the money raised this year versus last year, but rarely do you hear a discussion of the output and efficiency of the effort: lives saved, homeless rehabilitated, shelters built, or diseases conquered, per dollar raised.

Another example: by reading the paper one could assume that the success of a school is measured by the annual dollars spent per student (input). But with engineering thinking one is concerned with the larger system question, which is really a matter of economics: e.g. what is the average SAT score divided by the annual dollar per student (output/input); in other words, what is the efficiency of the school?

When deciding which car to purchase it would be foolish to just measure the amount of gas the car’s tank will hold (the input). If that were the economic issue, everyone would be driving vehicles with enormous gas tanks, probably even towing trailers full of gas behind them. But the total amount of gas is not really the issue, it’s the number of miles one will get per gallon of gas, or the output (miles) divided by the input (gallons).

One of the key ways to confirm that you are dealing with unscientific thinking is to see if the arguments are based solely on inputs. Such invalid arguments are frequently employed by bureaucrats.


Next post: How To Achieve Reliable Results

-Ed Walker


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