IE Lessons from Dilbert

By Tamara Wilhite posted 10-11-2018 12:12:41 PM

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 comic 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. A manager going around telling people to smile and lighten up instead of finding out why they're not in a good mood is a classic example of this.

“Go Add Value Somewhere Else”

This Dilbert comic book value jokes about how many people really don't add value, though they or their managers may think they do. 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.

Scott Adams has a gift for embodying contradictory perspectives in one statement, especially at the end of each comic, that become a meta-insight. And much of his advice is as applicable to industrial engineers as managers in general.

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

Per an IISE magazine article several years 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.

“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.

What would you say was your best professional insight after reading Dilbert?



10-17-2018 12:11:06 PM

What would you consider the most applicable Dilbert comic to industrial engineering?