What is an acceptable level of risk you are willing to take? Would you consider base jumping for the first time? Or are you like me and only interested in binge watching others do it on YouTube? Last year, did you fly on commercial airlines, and if so, did that make you nervous? How about today, while we search for a “new normal” due to COVID-19?
Our individual level of acceptable risk is both personal and influenced by our environment. Thus, risk tolerance is subjective. What is objective is what can be measured and described when compared against a set of conditions. Take air travel for instance. Prior to COVID-19, a large swath of our population had an objective fear of flying that can be measured psychologically or in their travel choices. The fear is real, but is it rational?
As recent as this January, researchers at MIT reported that fatality rates for commercial air travel have fallen by a factor of two each decade since the late 1970’s. As of 2019, there is a 1 in 33,000,000 chance of fatality each time you board an aircraft. For comparison, there is a 1 in 700,000 chance of being struck by lightning in the US. You’re 47 times more likely to be struck by lightning than die in an aircraft accident. Regardless, the fear of flying is real, measurable, and objective. Rational, though? Not so much.
What we find from this is that it’s not necessarily what is known to be true that is our concern. It’s what we assume to be true that ties us in knots. At times, those assumptions of truth lead to fear or sometimes, the loss of business, lives, or both as objective truth reveals itself.
Finding Objective Truth by Challenging Our Own Assumptions of Truth
None of us are perfect. Equally, none of us enjoy being challenged about what we hold to be true. And engineers are at the top of the list of folks that get cranky when challenged. I know, I employ a bunch of them, and I am one myself.
Regardless, the truth succeeds on its own merit. That’s not meant to be a “hold-hands-and-everything-will-have-a-happy-ending” statement. Objective truth is brutal in exposing misplaced assumptions. Thus, a rigorous submission to understanding what is objective is always in the best interest of the engineer. Let’s look more closely at two of the biggest assumptions that have historically gone unchallenged in engineering.
1. Our Design is Going to Work When We Build It
Assuming what we design in theory is going to work in reality is one of the riskiest things we do as engineers. We’ve spent years learning numerous engineering theories, so it’s easy to assume that those theories will translate from paper to practicality. But experience has taught us that a mixture of entropy, naiveté, and human mistake gets the last vote when it comes time to give life to our design. Understanding this, a better approach is to assume our paper design is imperfect and has flaws we don’t even know about. As a result, we should prototype and iterate upon our designs as quickly as possible so we can fail fast, early, and often in pursuit of a working design.
2. You Can’t Test Anything Until You Build Everything
This rapid protype and test approach actually leads us directly to the second assumption of truth we tend to have in engineering – we can’t test ANYTHING until we build EVERYTHING. Once we have the complete paper design, which we likely already assumed will work, it’s usually current practice to build everything in the design before we test any one thing. This is antiquated thinking at best, but so many companies still live by this adage.
We really don’t need to build everything all at once. Instead, we need to look at the parts of the design that are innovative and novel and build and verify those parts of the design before we even get to a critical design review. This is a massive change for some, but will result in the development of complete systems much faster and with higher quality.
Facing Our Own Assumptions of Truth
In the interest of being authentic and transparent, at Hiller Measurements we’ve struggled with these two assumptions as well. But we’ve recognized it and have implemented a rigorous design and development process that challenges these traditional approaches. The Hiller Measurements Flow Control (HMFC) process starts from the notion that our innovative idea is imperfect and needs refinement. As a result, we’ve moved risk to the left of the schedule and made identifying and addressing risk a priority for iterating our designs.
Instead of building the entire test system, and then troubleshooting, we first examine the design for four main risks. Using those metrics of risks, we test the most probable areas of risk before we build the entire design. This results in quick prototyping to mitigate risk before we proceed with the full-on completion of the design.
We’re Seeing Our Process with New Eyes
At its root, the value we are trying to hone, and improve on, is to help our customers challenge these assumptions of truth as well so they have a better, faster, more robust understanding of what is objectively true and avoid the painful outcome of misunderstood assumptions. Together, we can deliver a far more robust product on behalf of, and in partnership with our customer.
Humbly challenging our design assumptions early in the HMFC process is an act of respect to our employees, shareholders, and clientele. Equipping our clientele to likewise challenge their design assumptions is the noblest of values Hiller intends to deliver today, and deliver even better tomorrow.