Engineering Perfection: Is It Better To Be Right Or On Time?
In business, time is money. Wasted time is a LOT of money. When you are completing an assignment, are engineers better off getting their work in on time or getting it right the first time?
Lessons From An Engineering Manager
In my day-to-day efforts, I need to balance my team’s execution versus their effectiveness. I have deadlines promised to the organization, and I strive to exceed these dates. I push my team to improve their performance by executing to their commitments.
Timing is great when everything is perfect. What happens when something is wrong?
Engineers are strangers in the business world. We think differently than others. We train to solve problems scientifically. We are often perfectionist striving to ensure everything is just so. Dates are a suggestion against developing the perfect solutions. We do not compromise.
Perfection is an ultimate goal. If the solution is six months late, what value does it bring for being perfect?
Tinker, Tinker, And Tinker Some More…
Many colleagues are tinkerers. They twist, turn, pull, and push to ensure everything is perfect. Precision is our king! They continue to work out minute details to the deepest degree.
Many in business find this behavior annoying. Analysis by paralysis is paralleled. Why can’t these engineers make a decision?
Engineers by nature want to be right and provide perfection. Often, this need leads to their own detriment.
So What Is Right?
Business needs to move forward, and deadlines must be kept. Customers expect results on the day published. They want their stuff.
The same stakeholders also want their product to work. Mistakes are unacceptable, and functionality is required.
So how do you choose between right and right now?
Lesser Of The Evils…
In many cases, I can negotiate with a customer for more time. I cannot bargain for function. The product must work well to fulfill the customer’s needs. Make it right the first time.
Sacrificing time for function will pay off dividends. The balance of being late can be offset by correcting mistakes later in production, by providing a product that does not meet specification, and by avoiding any sort of rework. Costs of a mistake late in the development cycle of a product can costs 10X, 100X, or even 1000X dollars to correct. The earlier these errors are discovered, alternatively how “right” it is from the beginning, the less expensive to correct.
This opinion does not provide carte blanche to engineers to take all the time in world. Remember, time is money. Being late to be right cannot always happen, and time is a finite resource. Sometimes, you must compromise a little perfection to maintain timelines.
How do you choose?
Giving Up Control Over Perfection
Each engineer within his or her career must learn the balance between time and perfection. Sometimes good enough is everything a project needs. Other situations require perfection.
Most people will explain this balance is only learned through experience. Over time, “you will figure it out.”
My best advice to any engineer is to be curious and ask questions. Ask your boss, what is most important to her agenda? What is critical to the customer specification? How do I know what is important to get right versus having it complete right now?
Advice From A Sage…
Below, I have included a few “rules of thumb” to begin your journey.
If safety of another human being is a concern, lean towards perfection. Human life is far more important than a penalty for being late. If you feel something needs more effort to keep someone safe, take the extra time and the hit to protect your integrity.
When product functionality is paramount to customer success, take the extra time. Similar to safety, you must choose what is right. Making the product stronger with the additional effort will outweigh the penalties in most cases.
Trivial items are the places to relax on perfection. Is a bolt length 10mm or 12mm long? In many cases, the difference is miniscule. Knowing what is important versus trivial will help engineers maintain their schedules without sacrificing product integrity.
If you need to ask yourself, “Do I need to do more to make this ‘right’ and will anyone care?” then place the extra effort on this topic. If the decision seems trivial, ask your boss or a senior member of the team their opinion. If you cannot sleep at night knowing something in your work is not measuring up to your personal integrity, add the effort.
Early in your career, your choices are not clear. You will make mistakes. I recommend making them on the side of caution… making it right the first time. You can always ask for forgiveness on delivery; however, apologizing for an error requires much more effort.
I walk a line between both worlds as an engineering executive. I need things done NOW to satisfy my customer, and I need output to be accurate. I cannot always have both. When in doubt, I will defend my engineers who make it “right” versus the one who cut corners to make it on time. Right comes with much less risk to the customer… unless perfection becomes an obsession.
Strive to “make it right” every time, and over time, you will learn to exceed your committed dates.
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