Are Engineers Wrong to Solve Production Problems when asked?

As I repeatedly remind people, we engineers love to solve problems … it is the very reason we became engineers.  Sometimes though, we fail to remind those who pose those problems to us that there may be a better solution than solving the problem.

The famous story of an engineer in the dark ages who faced being executed by guillotine comes to mind.  There were two men ahead of him and as the guillotine was released it failed to decapitate the first man.  By law then, he was freed.  The second man experienced the same failure and was released. But the third man, an engineer, studied the two mechanical failures and pointed out there was a kink in the chain holding the blade.

While not as obvious, I believe we are all too prone today to praise engineers for solving problems.  Better still, we celebrate those who write books and coin phrases that we all can use to discuss our challenges.

With that as a preamble, consider this recent posting by GreenBiz:  ‘Endineering’ solves a missing link for the circular economy | GreenBiz  You will have to admit that this is on point for what it endeavors to do.  The graphic above highlights this seemingly holistic perspective.

But there is something very similar to my guillotine analogy here that seemingly escapes everyone.  The first and most important question isn’t what you do at the end of life but why life began for something in the first place.  Yes, it is terribly important to “offboard” at the end of life … just as it was essential to “onboard” customers in the first phases of product introduction.

Did anyone carefully consider whether the product or service should be invented/perfected/offered in the first place?  Yes, packaging is out of control … check your trash to find any food in it anymore.  It is all packaging.  Amazon is quickly moving away from cardboard boxes where they can.  But still, think about it when you bring the trash out to the curb the next time.

I applaud the concept of circularity and especially the elegance of endineering.  It resonates in my problem-solving heart.  But we are still not asking the right questions, I think, because we are afraid of them.  Plus, this new concept of endineering is the perfect answer to critics of this or that because the culprit companies can now spend years and countless millions of shareholder dollars chasing the perfect circular design.

That ironically should be a key clue to our error here: we are going around in circles, rather than deciding whether we should be in this circus of endless pursuit of the circular solution.  We need “out of the circle” ideas much like we learned that solving some puzzles requires out of the box thinking.  We are inside these circles admiring the process.  We need to pull back to see that being inside the circle is our problem.


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