Mark Twain’s Classic Advice and Industrial Engineering Today

I heard an excellent quote I did not know came from Mark Twain: continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. I’ve written here and elsewhere how  incremental improvements taken a step at a time leads often lead to greater progress than major shifts due to the high failure rate of “big” projects. To my surprise, many more of his other insights apply to industrial engineering today.


Samuel Clements / Mark Twain wrote, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” Waiting for the perfect opportunity or ideal design, like so much in life, results in no progress at all because there is no such thing as perfect. Paralysis by analysis, too, leads to one never getting started. This is why I advocate the incremental improvement method – you can start now instead of waiting for budgets and scheduled time that may never appear.


“Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” There are far more commentaries than should be on clickbait headlines that trumpet the opposite of the results of the study being discussed by the article. Less commonly discussed is how statistics are often warped to fit the results one wants or decrease the negative trend one doesn’t want others to see. The difference between excluding one rogue data point and a few can lead to a literal slippery slope.


There’s another version of the above quote by Mark Twain. “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Knowledge based management requires collecting accurate data and applying the meaning to it; the latter step is open to interpretation and human error.
“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Just as one unusual case leads to bad legislation, one “classic” example can lead to mistakes because it is held up as the perfect paradigm. One perfect project methodology could be replicated in other departments or lessons learned applied to other companies, but it should not turn into a hammer that gets applied when one truly needs a saw.


“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” I’ve witnessed the spread of credential-itis and its pernicious side effects. Variations include demands that one defer to the master’s degree holder with no experience to engineers ignoring advice from the front line lead talking about the problems they’ve been watching develop all day. The opposite of this is the use of quality circles and open solicitation of ideas from those on the shop floor to improve operations.


“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The assumptions one makes that are incorrect cause the greatest problems. Peter Drucker’s theory of business called for challenging the assumptions on which the business model is based. Assuming the underlying assumptions are still true leads to mistakes, just as failing to see changes in the market and supply chain cause major failures down the line.


“Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” One version of this in real life is the proliferation of features, each seen as essential because it was in the prior version.

Another variation is the continued collection of data, merely adding to the types of data collected. I’ve observed data collection performed in the hope that the data will be useful one day as well as suggested eliminating data collection fields as both labor savings and an error reduction technique.

The NSA took this to an illogical extreme, such that they were drowning in data in such volume they couldn’t find the information they needed that was the justification of the entire data collection effort in the first place. Streamlining data collection not only improves everyone’s efficiency but slows the growth of data repositories growing at 10%+ per year. In the case of online forms to be filled out by customers, cutting back on all the “necessary” data entry reduces shopping cart abandonment rates, as well.