IE Lessons Learned from Dilbert, Part Two

The Dilbert comic strip has mocked nearly every aspect of corporate America for decades. Among those targets includes process improvement methodologies and management fads. And, funny enough, there are lessons we can learn from the good-natured criticisms.


“I Assure You That This Program Has a Totally Different Name”


5S, TQM, Lean, Six Sigma and other process improvement methodologies share elements with at least one other. Lean, I think, originates from the Toyota Production System. Supply chain management is a rebranding of inventory control and lead time reduction. Six Sigma is an extension of Total Quality Management. Continuous Process Improvement in various forms comes from Deming’s PDCA. Adding another one or two steps is literally a minor change. The new name is used to sell a new set of consulting services, while those who are not IEs think that it is unrelated to the prior skillsets. I sat in one interview where the interviewer asked me if I was familiar with CPI. I had to ask for clarification, since the financial term was my first thought. I said yes, Six Sigma, and my degree by definition includes lean principles. They likely struck me off the list then, because my prior training didn’t seem relevant to the new buzzword.


“My Company Is Moving to JIT.” “So Your Success Depends on Us Keeping Promises? Sympathies.”


This is a synopsis of a March 14, 2003 comic strip. And it surprises me that some people don’t realize the great risk a just in time system creates. When you’re reliant on the other person to meet schedule and quality requirements, you’re at the mercy of their performance. Having some inventory on hand to fill in the gaps if they are late shouldn’t be seen as a sin, even if you have alternate sources of products and services, since your backup plans may take longer than you expect. You don’t have to hoard inventory unless that is literally the only way to acquire it (farm harvests, for example), but having margin is always wise.


“Less of What?”


The February 13, 2011 Dilbert comic strip features the pointy haired boss saying less is more. However, he rules out less meetings and less micromanagement, instead clarifying he only means less money. In general, we need to recognize that lean should include less of all sorts of waste and shouldn’t automatically come with the assumption that you can cut funding. Ironically, process improvement methods can become inefficient in their own right, when you’re chasing asymptotic limits of improvement. Switching to a different methodology like from Lean to Six Sigma or Six Sigma to 5S improves the odds you’ve find new, low cost improvements to make in the organization and process flow.

IE Lessons from Dilbert, Part 1


I remember a story from and by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, about the language shift of the 1990s. Many of the buzz words for management trends shifted to clearer and more pragmatic terms, as one manager said, they were uncertain who was feeding ideas to Dilbert and were afraid that what they said in the meeting would be mocked in the next comic.

I’ve found a number of lessons for industrial engineers from Dilbert. We’ll start with the titles of some of his latest books.


“I’m No Scientist, But I Think Fung Shui Is the Answer”


Just because you know of a management fad doesn’t mean it is applicable to your situation. And applying it may be counter-productive.


“Optimism Sounds Exhausting”


Too many managers and employees focus on looking good instead of doing good, assuming that if it looks good, it is good, and if you make it look good, you’ll magically cause others to do good. When you focus on the appearance instead of the reality, you may end up letting a bad situation get worse. And the time spent maintaining appearances instead of honestly assessing the situation and correcting it is never value added.


“Go Add Value Somewhere Else”


Dr. Jordan Peterson said that more than half of management activity is not value added, while a fraction of what remains is actually counter-productive. If the team is trying to cut the manager or a team mate out of the process, the likely answer is that they person is counter-productive in some way. And it may be a good idea to find somewhere else for them to add value, especially if the time and effort of trying to resolve the conflicts or mistaken beliefs get in the way of getting work done.


“Your New Job Title Is Accomplice”


If someone is asking you to alter the data or recommendations to suit an agenda, be wary of their motivations and the end results. If the request comes with demands for secrecy, barring actually having a government security clearance, the best answer is “no”.


“I Can’t Remember If We’re Cheap or Smart”


This conundrum comes up in a variety of ways. If you set a small budget, you may find creativity and productivity finding ways to use the resources you have instead of the default action of buying new and starting from scratch. Set a budget too small, and you’re almost setting people up for failure or fraud. Or you end up with high technical debt and burned out staff working unpaid overtime. That’s just another recipe for failure.


“Team Work Means You Can’t Pick a Side That’s Right”


The book “The Wisdom of the Crowds” discussed how a general consensus generated by open discussion without extra weight given to any person or group was more accurate than even an educated guess by experts. One issue I’ve seen in modern life is the increased deference to people with multiple credentials though their expertise may not apply to that situation, skewing the results. Another mistake is “we’ve hammered out a consensus by hammering on the holdouts instead of trying to resolve root causes of their concern, now the team is right, do what we say”. This situation creates people who are more likely to not really give their all for the project, since the consensus is false, and your project risks failure because you poo-pooed their concerns … too often because a key person says optimism and emotional investment in the vision overrides risk management. Until the project fails.


“Your Accomplishments Are Suspiciously Hard to Verify”


This maxim is embodied in the default presumption that statements with statistics are more correct and honest when it includes statistics. Reports with statistics and resumes citing numbers have more gravitas with the reader than generic platitudes. Just be ready to back it up with real data when someone asks for more evidence, because 90% of statistics are made up on the spot, including this one.


“Problem Identified, And You’re Probably Not Part of the Solution”


If someone gave that statement in a private or public meeting, the biggest problem with it is the failure to be directly honest. If someone is making mistakes while training, don’t ignore it and hope it improves, but send them back for more training or team them up with a mentor to figure out what they aren’t doing right. If someone is failing to live up to performance requirements of the job, ask why. It could be lack of resources, lack of support, a mismatch between job requirements and skills, a personality mismatch relative to the ideal fit for the job or a change in personal circumstances.

I personally ran into times where the drop in productivity was because training on a new software system didn’t cover what people needed to know, and instead of lecturing people for not reading the manuals, I created job specific (and short) references so that people knew what to do for what they had to do. Saying that the problem was the shop floor personnel or giving generic criticisms of the software didn’t solve the problem. Identifying the root cause and then working with people to solve it was.


“This Is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value”


Per an IISE magazine article a year or so ago, implementing basic management practices like inventory management, basic quality checks and inventory control reduced waste and improved productivity for poor Asian businesses about 10%. Simply not ordering things on a monthly basis but checking to see if you had some in stock first improved their profitability. In this regard, management can increase productivity and quality.

Unfortunately, management in business is another form of administratium, the element that is the only one in the known universe that increases its mass by adding new layers and attracting more elements like itself until it is unbearably heavy. Organizations have to be mindful of the tendency to add administrative controls, layers, and bloat. Streamlining production is a start, but streamlining the administrative processes and actually reducing the need for administrators is even more important. Sometimes the first step is reviewing one’s processes when there is an error or disaster and implementing a solution other than yet another administrative check.

Nor do I think this is mere theory. I improved process control and IT manufacturing flow in one department to the point I was redundant; that’s when I moved to formal IT.


Paying Attention to the Forgotten Human Factor – Updated


Process improvement often focuses on easily measured metrics: the time required to complete a task, error rates, transactions per time period. Six Sigma projects in IT often focus on easily quantified bottlenecks like bandwidth, uptime, and the utilization rate of humans. Yet there is an equally crucial bottleneck that is rarely realized: human attention.


People have a limited amount of attention as they have a limited amount of time on the job. And as with time, there are many things vying for that attention. Some distracters that take away user or computer operator attention can be handled via human resources: noise canceling headphones to reduce noise distractions, privacy screens to reduce wandering conversations, abandoning the open office concept that dumps people into a perpetually distracting environment. This gives users more time and attention to put into the software applications they are using. Yet those software applications themselves may be adding to the attention disruptions they suffer.


Statements like “Just add a pop up when they should see the error” or “Oh, give them a notice when the transaction is complete” are easy to say and almost as easy to implement. If the user had only that one application running when the error appeared, it would get the attention it deserved. Now jump into reality. The user has logged on and started bringing up the four to six applications they often use simultaneously. Virus software updates pop up immediately. A couple of IMs shouting for someone to do something appear. Maybe a junk pop-up message from your browser. Add in periodic login prompts, information only notices, and true error messages, and the high priority pop-up notice gets closed along with 20 other lesser notices. Users respond to the deluge by glancing at – or not even looking at – all the messages before closing them all.


Problems resulting from so many attention disrupting messages include:

  • Errors not getting noticed, and thus not getting resolved
  • Wasted time by users closing informational messages they don’t need
  • Distraction from their primary tasks as they attempt to evaluate the actions necessary from so many information sources
  • Interruption of their primary tasks from non-value added messages, which in turn increases their error rates


How then can IT deal with these attacks on the efficient use of human attention? There are several possible solutions:


  • Don’t use pop-up notices to inform users of completed transactions and other minor informational messages. Put the message clearly on the screen instead.
  • If the error is important, have the error come up on large text on the application or browser screen. More importantly, don’t let the user complete the transaction until the error is resolved. If the error is a pop-up which can be closed, the odds increase that the pop-up will be ignored or closed without corrective action. If it is a critical error, don’t let them proceed. Design the applications so that users cannot close a pop-up in habit and then not understand why they cannot continue to the next step.
  • If applications require frequent updating, either schedule the updates for non-user time or push out updates without user notification. They should not have their attention taken away for things they either have no control of or do not care about.
  • Discourage IM in place of human communication when someone is doing something important. If it isn’t important enough to warrant calling or visiting the person, then it probably isn’t worth bothering the person in the first place – and thus a needless distraction. The rare exception is instant messaging someone to notify them of a serious problem, but too many use IM to create digital equivalents of dropping by to chat while the instinctive response of the younger generation is to reply, even if disrupting an important task to say “I’m busy”, not realizing this in and of itself increases the odds they’ll make a mistake.
  • Design software from the beginning to minimize the number of pop-ups and notices receive in the first place. Save disruptive notifications for high priority issues so that they get the attention they deserve.


Software applications and environments should factor in that most underappreciated yet so critical bottleneck – human attention.

3D Printing Does Not Make Industrial Engineering Obsolete – Here’s Why

I had a discussion with someone in which I mentioned my transition from industrial engineering to IT. The person asked me if I thought 3D printing would make the entire profession of industrial engineering obsolete. My short answer was no. Here is a longer answer as to why 3D printing doesn’t render IE obsolete.

  • Not everything can be 3D printed, and there are still products that can be printed that will remain mass produced due to economies of scale. For most facilities today and at least a plurality later, 3D printing will simply add to the mix, not replace it altogether.
  • IE expertise in ergonomics remains as relevant as ever, whether 3D printing toys, tools or prosthetics.
  • Project management continues its trend toward complexity as one relies on disparate experts for design, simulation, manufacturing and testing.
  • When 3D printing is done in revamped or brand new facilities, it is a shift toward job-shop style production with mass customization. That is a shift back toward small lots with a lot of variability but doesn’t make IE obsolete.
  • Quality control remains as important as ever, though automation of inspection becomes harder if not impossible due to the sheer variety one can 3D print.
  • Industrial engineering’s expansion into the service industry will remain unaffected by 3D printing. Demand for IE experts in logistics and supply chain planning will only grow as support for mass customization and production of unique items increases.
  • Industrial engineers in Human Resources will continue to see a decline in the number of unskilled laborers in favor of maximizing the efficiency of semi-skilled and skilled laborers. In short, far fewer low skill assemblers versus more mechanics, engineers and IT staff.
  • Risk management remains equally important and may become more important in an ever-changing world.
  • The demand for product modeling and process modeling by industrial and systems engineers is likely to increase, not decrease, as far more parts are made via 3D models and printed on 3D printers.
  • Likewise, data management, configuration management and requirements management become essential at every business, increasing demand for those who know how to use the supporting software and tools.
  • Data mining and user experience remain frontiers for industrial engineers. Data mining of process data for process improvements and quality initiatives is a particularly strong future area of growth for the profession.


Though I write science fiction based on trends I can see, I don’t expect this to be an all-inclusive list. What would you, the reader, add to this list?