Too little interaction between engineering disciplines – working in ‘silos’ – can lead to poor outcomes. Holistic engineering is the way of the future, writes Paul Dimmock CPEng.
During a decade of coordinating engineering teams, most of which consisted of external consultants, I developed a strong view on how individuals and teams best work together.
My role was to deliver geotechnical engineering or geohazard outcomes. Time and again I observed that a lack of understanding of other team members’ contributions could lead to inconsistencies and misrepresentations.
Engineering is always a team game and, when it comes to playing as a team, most project groups have room for improvement.
Projects are typically multidisciplinary pursuits, comprising various engineering disciplines and many non-engineering disciplines. Holistic project teamwork is about every individual understanding what the overarching goal is and being able to see the global picture.
It is also about each individual understanding what their role is in helping to achieve that goal and how they need to interface within the team to deliver that project.
So how do we achieve a holistic approach to project engineering? Here are the four enablers that I have identified through experience and research.
1. Behavioural enablers
An essential ingredient for successful holistic engineering is humility. The engineer should have an open mind and be willing to inform others of their role. They should give the team an understanding of the sensitivity that their part of the system has to inputs and assumptions.
For example, a geotechnical engineer might communicate fundamental aspects of soil behaviour to a structural engineer, with a view to defining soil reaction. In return, the structural engineer may communicate the nature of the structure, the origin and nature of loads, and the sensitivity of structural performance to the soil reaction. Together, the engineers can then determine the best way to model the problem.
Being mindful of what causes unhelpful behaviours can help pre-empt them. They may stem from a concern that others will do the work themselves to seek reward or benefit, that they may be critical of or not understand the work, or that there is no perceived benefit in educating others.
“Respect, tolerance and multicultural sensitivity are vital qualities for effective communication and positive teamwork.”
2. Knowledge enablers
Many engineering disciplines have sufficient common backgrounds to build a mutual understanding of other disciplines with which they come into contact.
For instance, principles of mechanics are the bedrock for many engineering disciplines, and the behaviour of materials in mechanical systems are typically defined by stress-strain relationships.
It would be foolish to claim that each engineer should be completely fluent in their colleagues’ areas, but unless you have enough of an overlap of understanding to ensure that the information you’re providing is absolutely fit for its purpose, then you’re not working as effectively as possible.
Individuals must not only be aware of the bigger picture but must also ask enough questions of one another to ensure that nothing slips between the cracks. I’ve seen this part of the process break down in many ways.
Some engineers are too proud or simply cannot be bothered. Some are not really interested in other disciplines. But when you open yourself up to that interaction, you see great commonality in the way engineers go about things.
3. Communication enabler
Communication is a fundamental skill required for holistic engineering and it is deserving of more attention in engineering education.
An engineer may have a solid understanding of their specialist area and even sound knowledge of interfacing disciplines, but without the ability to communicate and interact effectively within the team, the overall engineering result may be compromised, and team morale may be poor.
Communication is multifaceted. Oral, written, listening and visual communication skills are all important. Respect, tolerance, and multicultural sensitivity are also vital qualities for effective communication and positive teamwork.
4. Design-approach enabler
Behaviour, knowledge and communication — the three previous enablers — are human factors. But the design approach is connected to process. It forms the basis on which the team is going to design something.
For example, will the project be designed to standard codified methods or will its design be tailored so as to target a specific probability of failure?
When an engineer follows a prescriptive, standardised approach within their discipline, the engineering outcome will often be conservative.
A construction engineer might end up using more steel, for example, or a geotechnical engineer might end up designing a foundation with greater capacity than required.
“If engineers are asking probing questions of one another, it is going to lead to greater consistency.”
However, equally, standardised approaches have the potential to ‘blind’ the engineer to something different or atypical — something that is not adequately covered by the prescriptive approach and may be a risk to the project.
If you dig deeper, question, and work the interfaces more, and if the design approach provides the scope and transparency to do this, it may take more design thinking, more interfacing, more brainstorming and more complexity in analysis.
The ultimate outcome, however, should be a design that is optimised and perhaps even safer.
We have done things a certain way for decades — worked in silos and stuck to what we know — so why make the effort to make project teams think more holistically?
The first argument is to do with safety. In engineering, we aim to build things that are safe and functional. The more people there are who understand the big picture and who feed good data across the various project interfaces, the less chance there is of something going wrong.
If engineers ask positive, technical, probing questions of one another about what they’re doing with information, their assumptions, and what forms the basis of the decisions they are making, it will lead to greater consistency and therefore improved engineering outcomes.
It may even lead to a more efficient design process, potentially creating productivities and savings thanks to less conservative approaches from each discipline.
Finally, by feeling they are part of the bigger picture and by knowing what that bigger picture is — knowing their challenges are appreciated by their project team and by appreciating the challenges of others — engineers will be more engaged and therefore more productive in their jobs.
This article originally appeared as “Gearing up” in the February 2019 edition of create magazine.
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