Thinking of Thinking

Last year of college.  One of the last engineering classes, machine Design 412.  The final design was debated and brainstormed by the class itself, finally deciding the test would be to transport a playing card up 5 stair steps and then stop.  Few rules except no human intervention, mechanically centric, (it was a machine design class after all). And the number of steps climbed, determined the grade. Five steps earned an “A”, four a “B”, three a “C” etc.  Agile development hadn’t been invented yet, but it was still a sprint, we had three days to develop and test our solutions. There were a wide variety of solutions, but three stick out in my mind.

The first team immediately began to apply all of hard worked for knowledge—torque, gear ratios, electrical systems, motors; and built a machine that doctor Frankenstein would be proud of.  At its heart was a windshield wiper motor, powered by a new battery purchased from meager student funds, large dowels that formed spokes for climbing, and fishing line that was hooked up to turn the whole thing off after five steps.  It climbed two and a half steps and fell apart. C- for them.

The second team, who had carefully questioned the rules during the brainstorming sessions, took three lengths of half inch pipe, end caps, and a tee section to build a large “T.”  Balancing the contraption on the long end of the T, they let it drop and it flopped onto the middle step and stopped.  One member of the team left the field exclaiming, “I only need a “C” from this class to graduate”, and off he went. C for him.

Our final team carved two very large wheels out of Styrofoam, hooked them together with the cardboard tube from a paper towel roll, tied a string around the tube and attached three helium balloons to the string.  They carefully wound the string up, let go of the balloons, the machine climbed five steps and stopped at the limit of the string.  A+ for them.

So, looking at a very popular topic today in the engineering world? “Systems Thinking,” we first need to agree on a definition.  Today we will go with—Systems Thinking is a holistic approach to analysis, focused on how a system’s constituent parts interrelate and understanding how a system works over time and within the context of larger systems. Systems Thinking lays the foundation for reasoned action by identifying the correct problem to solve.

The first team identified the problem as “build a machine, applying knowledge acquired in the class.” They immediately went into design mode, working on the solution before fully determining the problem and defining the requirement correctly. They were engineering for engineering’s sake. It’s what we do, or at least what they thought they were being trained to do.

The second team determined that the problem was to simply get a “C” and leave for vacation. Their personal situation and prejudices overlooked vital parts of the problem and settled for solving only a portion of the problem.

The third team identified the problem as “move something a specific distance and stop.” Which was correct, and only after making this determination, began to explore functional and logical options before doing final design work and creating an effective solution.

What is clear, is that how the problem was perceived and identified, had a direct effect on the end design of the solution. I would argue that only the third team interpreted the problem correctly and received an “A,” although the second one may have fulfilled one member’s personal requirements in his interpretation.

This holds true for design and engineering. Systems Thinking enables proper identification of the problem, which leads to correct requirements characteristic definition, which flows into proper analysis for function and logical decisions, leading into final design within the various design disciplines.

Full disclosure, my brother and I were the first team, and although we only received a C- we learned a very valuable lesson about Systems Thinking that has carried through to today.

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