Solving problems in context

Jan. 19, 2012
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan,” said architect Eliel Saarinen. I also wrote about this idea in “A Step Up”

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan,” said architect Eliel Saarinen. I also wrote about this idea in “A Step Up”.

For example, the other day, the toilets in our home stopped flushing. I called a company that cleared the sewer line between the house and street. The company recommended a $3,200 plastic pipe which would be threaded into the existing line and provide the same diameter line without digging a trench.

After getting over sticker shock — I thought I faced a $100 root removal — the proposal sounded reasonable. But just to make sure, I posted the problem on my neighborhood e-mail group. Several neighbors had the procedure done and the outcome was good.

But one neighbor suggested a product that kills roots within minutes and protects the line against infiltration for a year or more. Cost: $30. Difficulty of application: Mix in pail; pour into toilet; don’t run the water for 6 hours.

By looking at the problem as something beyond my particular experience, I learned there were other ways to deal with it. Even if I only put off the pipe replacement for a year, that gave me an opportunity to manage my cash.

Author Michael Gerber, in a book series titled The E-Myth, says successful entrepreneurs must work on their businesses, not in them. He defines the “e-myth” as the belief that if you are good at something — say, baking or plumbing — you are automatically empowered to create and run a profitable baking or plumbing business. But neither bread-baking nor piping skills have much to do with finding customers, setting prices, choosing a good location, planning for growth, or any of the many other capabilities needed to run a successful business.

Thus, different rules can apply at the different levels. In Godel, Escher, Bach — An Eternal Golden Braid (highly recommended), computer scientist-philosopher Douglas Hofstadter creates a dialogue between an anteater and a talking anthill named Aunt Hillary. “Help yourself to any of the ants that look appetizing,” says Aunt Hillary to the anteater.

Other fantastical characters question this dialog. Isn’t the anteater an enemy of ants? Why is there a cordial relationship between Aunt Hillary and the anteater? The anteater explains that ants and ant colonies are entirely different entities. Just as engineers, although made up of cells, do not object to the fact that they are constantly losing them as new ones are created, Aunt Hillary does not hesitate to offer ants to her guest and intellectual sparring partner, the anteater.

How is all of this helpful to working engineers? Engineers should consider design, production, scheduling, management, or any other challenge in its next larger context. Say you want to add a connector to a measurement device. You find a really nifty one on an obscure Web site. The device is small, unobtrusive, and relatively inexpensive, but nonstandard. If the mating plug should get lost or damaged, you would have to order it. In contrast, a standard USB-type A plug will work, though it is clunkier. It will do the job and if it gets damaged, replacements are easily obtained.

Do you have an example of “going up the levels” that worked for you? Write to me: [email protected].

— Joel Orr

Joel Orr is an NLP Master Practitioner and
CTO of EZOSA, a software start-up.

Edited by Leslie Gordon
[email protected]

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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