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.


Not Quite As Funny

I was reading an older office humor book and found several threads in all the jokes, which made them collectively less funny.

  • Complaints about constant, needless change
  • Complaints about not being given correct information as a matter of practice
  • Abusive, bullying management practices
  • Complaints about overwork
  • Complaints about inefficiency of peers
  • Last minute changes that others fail to realize take a long time to implement correctly
  • Unrealistic schedules

As an industrial engineer, I realized though the comic book was nearly as old as me, the same issues remain in the workplace today. The same themes are found in Dilbert. But what are the solutions to these age old problems?

  • Have a clear, understandable reason for every change from procedure to hierarchy.
  • Communicate the changes to everyone involved and properly train them.
  • Training that is not directly related to specific, planned changes or legally required shouldn’t be given. It takes people away from productive uses of their time.
  • If you take everyone away from work for training, plan for the delays or making up the slack otherwise.
  • Recognize when the new fad is really a new name for an old concept, and don’t jump into seminars or rewrite your documentation to reflect the new names for what you already do.
  • Engage in clear communication and avoid the vague slogans even Deming and Drucker warned against, and don’t apply censorship to critical feedback based on fear of causing offense. Companies rise and fall on the ability to point out unproductive workers, managers making bad decisions, suspicion of fraud.
  • Ensure that employees can access the data they need to do their jobs in as few steps as possible, and don’t require data entry or collection unless necessary – and you know why that data is necessary.
  • Don’t let managers engage in bullying behaviors as a standard management technique, no matter their motivations.
  • Track workloads not just for the department but individuals. The top 5% of the department is doing 50% of the work. And too many people respond to new tasks by giving it to the people who are considered the most effective – contributing to overwork.
  • Seek feedback on the least productive members of your team. Then ask why they are not as productive as possible. Then fix the root cause – and  honestly, motivation and team building seminars are almost never the real solution.
  • Plan your changes before you start making them. And control your change process so that untested or minimally valuable changes get dropped in at the last minute, impacting the whole project.
  • Review workloads for each people and their schedules. Don’t assume you can simply give it to them today and it will be done today.
  • Don’t predicate raises and promotions on billed overtime regardless of actual need for it. You’ll end up with slower work rates, more meetings and less value added during 8-5 to move more work into the overtime category – or encourage overwork by the  ambitious who now put themselves at risk of burnout
  • Without constant analysis and application of lean principles to management, you get the growth of “Administration”. This is a constant in human nature unless one is constantly keeping it in check.
  • The tendency to use bloviated, abstract descriptions has long been done to minimize the negative emotional connotations tied to them, make them sound new or better.  “Dynamic processing environment” instead of kill zone comes to mind. Don’t torture the language to make the concepts seem less severe or better. It undermines communication and wastes time whether writing, reading or speaking. And then there’s the waste of updating all the documents per the new terminology …. I could write multiple blogs on that.

The Value of Focus in Business

Businesses are only efficient when they have a singular focus. This could have several facets, such as providing the highest quality service while hiring local people or providing employment for a specific population. A more common variation is providing high service at a low cost or the best service as quickly as possible.

What are some mistakes businesses make when they lose their focus?

  • Trying to serve a broader market while losing focus on their core market, often with lower ROI
  • Trying to dominate broad key search terms that come at a higher price instead of narrower search terms that cost less and are easier to dominate
  • Attempting to implement local SEO based on a large geographic area, such as referencing all cities around you, instead of keeping the local search as focused as possible
  • Adding more tools, features and reports to your product instead of focusing on the most valuable feature improvements to your user base or more thorough product testing
  • Seeking to earn industry certifications like sustainable or ISO standards that have little value to the customer base, because they are the “in” certifications to have, and then investing time and effort to then maintain certification instead of value added activities
  • Adding and subtracting features based on what rival products have regardless of what your customers want or the quality of the product after these features are added
  • Trying to expand your customer base while neglecting those who buy most of your products, often ignoring the niche uses you could market to without hurting the main market or changing the product; a classic failure is dumping a profitable customer market because they aren’t the young adults many companies think they have to cater to
  • Trying to increase sales through the addition of new products regardless of their suitability to your customer base, instead of entering complimentary marketing agreements
  • Collecting as much data as possible in the hope of it being useful instead of determining what information is needed to make good decisions and collecting only what is necessary

Why Slow and Steady Wins the Innovation Race Almost Every Time

Everyone seems to want radical innovation. We see minor improvements and re-branding of existing products as the next big thing, because it is seen as so desirable. Let’s look at the reasons why slow and steady or incremental innovations are almost always the better business plan.


  • Most radical innovations fail. Companies may compound the risk by putting all their resources into the new big idea and fail themselves if the product doesn’t succeed.
  • Even if the radical innovation succeeds financially, they may take decades to be accepted and become highly profitable.
  • Incremental innovations are common and you may have a wealth of such ideas already in your organization but ignored because managers were looking for a “big” idea. And in waiting, you fail to improve in any area.
  • A series of incremental innovations can lead to dramatic savings in cycle time, quality, manufacturability and every area of a product’s manufacture. Lowering ongoing costs for existing bread and butter projects increases profits now.
  • By seeking the ready opportunities for incremental improvements, you see savings or improvements in any area quickly for often a low cost and high return on investment. In contrast, the big new thing may be expensive to make and may not pay off.
  • Incrementalism allows for A/B testing of ideas for acceptance whether complimentary products or new features. Offering a new combined product in addition to the current one lets you see if the new one is actually better for the market without a major expenditure.
  • There is a bad tendency to look at radical innovation as “one and done”. The designers often rest on their wilting laurels as others come out with a similar product or service with incremental improvements and take over the market.
  • When a company succeeds with a radical idea, they tend to focus on finding the next big innovation instead of improving their current “big” idea or incremental improvements to other products. And that lightning may not strike a second time.