Sunday, February 18, 2018

How to use engineering standards

When I mention engineering standards I either get blank stares or yawning in response. During my career spanning more than two decades, I saw that engineers usually fall between two extremes, heroic or bureaucratic:

What benefit do standards provide? They never guarantee the quality of a complex product but if applied correctly, they save the company from simple mistakes. The majority of resources are usually expended on creating the same problem and solving it again a million times. Standards also ease information exchange between engineers. When introduced to the organization for the first time, they increase short term cost but can be profitable in the long run. But never forget that "A Fool with a Tool is Still a Fool".

For high quality complex products, you need good engineers in a company that already has workflows and documentation practices in place. If your product is not complex and you don't care if your company exists for the next 5 to 10 years, you can throw away the standards and just focus on hiring good engineers.

Very few people are in the sweet spot of wise engineers who understand project needs and tailor standards accordingly. Examples of questions related to standards only wise engineers can answer:
  • What is the safety level of the project? This needs a good understanding of the statement of work / technical specification prepared by the customer and affects everything that follows. It might be the difference between going bankrupt and finishing the project successfully.
  • Which standards and sections of standards are applicable? This also depends on the safety level.
  • Which documents can be combined?
  • When a project is already close to completion and due to last minute certification concerns adherence to standards have to be demonstrated to an independent assessor: Which document should be created first? This priority is very important, because most probably, you won't be able to prepare all the documents at the time the assessor shows up on your doorstep. If you have prepared the most important docs, you might gain time and sympathy instead of being labelled as clueless morons.

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