Can Engineering Organizations Learn? LO16650

Michael N. Erickson (
Fri, 23 Jan 1998 09:04:27 -0800 (PST)

Replying to LO16645 --


I'm a cartoonist currently working in a Business Process Re-engineering
project at the Boeing company (see Fortune Magazine Article about it at
url: and have in the
past spent time in the engineering sections (737 program computing design
projects and others) and I have to say that while the rigid adherence to
heirarchy and mind set marks the engineer as a particularly sticky case,
they are not without hope.

On Thu, 22 Jan 1998, Scott Wilshire wrote:
> I am involved in trying to resurrect the ability to promote continuous
> learning within a rigid (by heirarchy and mindset) engineering design
> organization. The culture is one of strict adherence to administrative and
> design requirements. Efforts to date to integrate knowledge sharing,
> collaboration, and mentoring have failed because the systems and processes
> do not support change. I'm curious if any of you have examples of positive
> changes with respect to "learning organization" applications within
> similar organizations. I hear a lot of "we're different" and "it won't
> work here" responses to change initiatives. I think that earlier in its
> history, the organization did embody many of the concepts discussed within
> these discussions. But not now. Thanks.

In working with engineers I've had to approach them on as much of their
wavelength as possible-talking about facts and data. Being a cartoonist
sets me up for all sorts of attacks by the engineering types because their
belief that "all that silly stuff is for children or the mentally
defective" and "we are NOT a cartoony company". I have to show them how
badly "wrapped around the axle" they typically are by their immersion in
the information they are working with. Engineers are notorious for
missing the big picture - straining at gnats and swallowing camels, and
they must be shown technical studies and given information that explains
why the facts and data orientation is limiting.

Using a JAD style facilitation approach, or by proposing to them that I
need to produce cartoon art for cross organization communication - which
is partially true, I've been able to get them to tentatively at first try
to come up with analogies describing their work. This new thing we are
working on is like this other thing you are familiar with-in the following

Once I get them to work on their task using metaphor or analogy (which
cartoon art obviously does very well, be it a design problem or something
else), and they begin to literally see what they are saying, they discover
holes in their thinking, miscommunications amongst themselves that are not
obvious (particularly amongst engineers from different disciplines - aka
industrial engineering and manufacturing engineering, where they have
their own unique dialect) and they begin to make the creative leaps and
solve problems.

It's only THEN I can introduce some of the more obvious (to you or I) LO
concepts, teaming, mentoring, mental modeling and sharing.

You have to get them into a different "headspace" and They gotta see it
work-then they believe and can learn. After they've learned, they
typically don't lead the LO activities since they typically retain their
main interest in detail, task, schedule and the like (that's what makes
good engineers after all) but they do participate and contribute.

This is a case of leading them into it rather than legislating it into
existance. Hey I'm just a hack cartoonist, with no managerial authority,
but I've been able to lead engineering groups into a different headspace,
and I know I've helped make a difference.

Michael Erickson


"Michael N. Erickson" <>

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