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August 31, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 8


Dr. J. Stephen Rottler, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Science and Technology at Sandia National Laboratories, spoke to the graduating class of NASAs Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program (SELDP) at NASA Headquarters on June 24, 2009.

(Editors note: Dr. J. Stephen Rottler is Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Science and Technology, and the former Chief Engineer for Nuclear Weapons and Vice President of Weapon Engineering and Product Realization, at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He spoke to the graduating class of NASA’s Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program (SELDP) at NASA Headquarters on June 24, 2009. ASK the Academy is grateful for the opportunity to publish an edited version of his prepared remarks.)

Perspectives on Leadership in Engineering
By Dr. J. Stephen Rottler

During my twenty-four years at Sandia National Laboratories, it has been my good fortune to experience almost all elements of the engineering lifecycle — research, engineering development, production, and field operations. This wide-ranging experience has provided me with an opportunity to lead and observe engineers at work across a wide variety of engineering disciplines and applications. I have drawn many lessons from these experiences, which I place in the “I wish I knew then what I know now” category of professional experiences. These lessons are rather simple and straightforward. You may even be inclined to dismiss them as being unworthy of further consideration. However, I offer a word of caution. It has been my experience that we are often challenged most by the events and issues in our lives that we label as “trivial.” I think this is because our technical training leads us to explore more deeply that which is difficult and complicated, while often failing to examine critically that which we judge to be simple and to pose little or no challenge to our competencies. I have a saying that I repeat to myself often to avoid this mental trap: when presented with an assertion that something is “simple,” look for complexity that has not yet been detected; when confronted with an assertion that something is “complex,” look for the simplicity waiting to be discovered.

One of the most difficult challenges faced by the leader of an engineering organization is to assure that customers experience a satisfying outcome. In my experience, this is determined by two factors: (1) adherence to cost, schedule, and performance requirements, and (2) execution of work in a manner that yields predictable outcomes. This is challenging because in an organization of thousands of employees, the action or inaction of any one employee can bring a program to its knees, and as we all know it is impossible for a leader to control individual actions. Success can only be achieved when a leader focuses on developing attitudes and behaviors within the workforce that result in error prevention, and implementing a management system and work approaches that encourage desired behaviors and discourage unwanted behaviors. While there are many actions a leader can take to achieve these outcomes, I will mention only four.

  1. Plan — It’s the Essence of Engineering
    Many engineers with whom I work are schizophrenic about planning. On the one hand, most would not dream of executing an engineering program without a plan. On the other hand, I often observe that their focus is on the “plan” rather than on the benefits that result from the act of planning. We “plan” for the purpose of promoting critical thinking and creating order for the work to be performed. In particular, planning enables us to elevate our consciousness of risks, illuminate task dependencies, and make effective use of resources.I believe one of the most critical aspects of planning is requirements definition and management. While this can often be a tedious and laborious effort, failure to invest the time necessary to establish a clear and unambiguous understanding of requirements at the beginning of a program, and then to track requirements through engineering development and qualification will, with near certainty, result in a failure to meet a requirement, incurring significant schedule delays and/or cost increases. There are many challenges in requirements management that confront an engineering leader, ranging from the all-too-common phenomenon of “requirements creep” to the lack of standards-based requirements management tools. (Many tools are available, but not all are user-friendly.)

    One of the most complex and costly issues is inadequate identification and management of technological risk. Technology Readiness Levels are a very valuable and helpful tool, but not a perfect solution. A lack of discipline and critical thinking in acquisition programs can lead to blind acceptance of risk when a healthy tension between “technology providers” and “acquisition officials” is lost. This has been an issue in some government agencies where outsourcing of acquisition expertise has occurred over the past decade or so as a cost-cutting measure.

  2. Manage Communications as an Ethical Endeavor
    Poor communication is a common cause of conflicts or issues that require management attention. More often than not, I find that the individuals or organizations involved in a conflict believe they are “communicating,” but in fact they are engaged in very different conversations. It is important for leaders to remember that the act of communicating should result in “shared interpretation,” not just the sharing of information—and shared interpretation is essential in achieving informed consent. It is the responsibility of the communicator to verify that shared interpretation has been achieved.Effective communication requires that we engage each other using our hearts and our heads. This is often challenging for engineers and their leaders because we are taught through our academic and professional training to solve problems with detached objectivity and cold logic — hardly a recipe for success when attempting to traverse the minefield of egos, feelings, and emotions inherent in human interaction. This is well-illustrated by the joke, “What is the difference between an introverted engineer and an extroverted engineer? The introverted engineer looks at his or her shoes when talking to you; the extroverted engineer looks at your shoes.”
  3. Obtain Thorough, Objective, Authoritative Reviews of the Work
    Independent, probing reviews are critical to the successful execution of engineering programs. When properly chartered and performed, independent reviews or assessments can be very effective at preventing all classes of errors. They should begin early in a program life cycle and take place often enough to ensure that issues come to light as soon as possible.Independent reviews should satisfy three basic criteria. First, they should be performed by individuals who can be objective about the work being reviewed. By necessity, this means that the reviewers must be independent. This is not because we doubt the competence or trustworthiness of those performing work, but rather because we lose our ability to think objectively and critically about our work as we become more invested in it. A fresh set of eyes can often identify errors or precursors to errors that would otherwise be missed because of built-in assumptions being made by the individual or team performing the work. Independent reviews should also be conducted with thoroughness, critical thinking, and attention to detail. Lastly, independent reviews should be authoritative; they should be conducted by individuals who have relevant knowledge and experience in the topic(s) being reviewed.

    The willingness to subject one’s work to independent review or assessment is a hallmark of a “learning organization,” and a characteristic of great engineering organizations. This organizational behavior can be hard to establish because engineers and their leaders frequently connect their self-worth, and thus their egos, with the products and services they design and provide their customers. This can make it difficult for us to hear critical feedback about the warts, wrinkles, and other imperfections in our work. It is important that engineering leaders create a work environment in which engineers embrace and seek independent review as a means of preventing errors and assuring work is of highest quality.

  4. Always Demonstrate Utter Integrity with Respect to the Engineered Object
    A corollary to this important maxim is “never hope for a miraculous success.” What I mean by this is you should never find yourself in a situation where all you can say is that success rests on “hope.” In engineering we should always be taking steps to assure success and success should always be measured by the development of the “right” technical solution.In any engineering program or organization, there are often tremendous pressures and temptations to violate this important maxim, and nothing is more damaging to an organization and their reputation than to violate it. Nowhere is this more important than in engineering applications where safety is of paramount importance. In such work, openness and transparency are critically important, and it is essential that leaders create and sustain work environments in which employees willingly surface concerns. Employees must be encouraged to speak up when they have a concern, they must believe that their concern will be taken seriously, and they must believe that they will be respected, not punished, for having brought the issue forward. This is simple in concept but very difficult in practice. A message-bearer may not always present their concern in a way that is easy to hear, they may have a history of reporting concerns that were later found to be without merit, and/or they may present a concern at a time when the impact could have severe consequences for program execution. A failure to create this kind of work environment creates a cancer that will metastasize, leading to a complete breakdown of trust within the organization, and ultimately poor performance if not outright failure by the organization. Those of us involved in public service are held to an even higher standard in preventing such work environments because of the foundational premise that we honor public trust by conducting business in an open and transparent manner, with the highest level of integrity.

At Sandia, I speak frequently on such matters and of my experiences. I have found it useful to describe the practice of engineering with excellence as an ethical imperative. I believe this ethical obligation stems from the fact that the consequences of a failure to practice engineering with excellence can be severe, if not catastrophic. Our customers, users, and stakeholders expect us to execute our work in a way that protects them from failures that would jeopardize their safety or security, or waste public funds. When we do not act intentionally to prevent such errors we abuse their trust, and engage in unethical conduct.

I always end my discussions of engineering excellence with two quotations. The first quote is from Aristotle, who wrote in “Nichomachean Ethics” that “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” This states in very clear terms that for an engineer or a leader of engineers, excellence must be something more than a concept or a frame of mind. It must be something we strive to achieve by adopting attitudes and behaviors that lead us continuously and assuredly to higher levels of performance.

The second quote is from one of the greatest scientific minds in history — Albert Einstein — who said: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest for all technical endeavors in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

I carry these two quotations with me as a daily reminder of my ethical obligations as an engineer and a leader of engineers. I hope they inspire you as they do me.

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