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What Is an Engineer’s Most Important Tool? A Good Pair of Shoes

Big data brings reams of manufacturing data to your fingertips. It does not eliminate the need to go to the plant floor to learn what exactly is going on.

One of the great things about my job is that I’m always learning. I frequently get to interview smart people who make me think about things I’ve never considered before, or think in directions I’ve never traveled before.

I recently had one of those interviews, and it struck me as so important that I wanted to share it with a larger audience than just me.

The person with whom I spoke was Jim Morgan. He is a senior advisor, product and process development, at the Lean Enterprise Institute, as well as an engineer, a book author and a former director at Ford Motor Co.

While Morgan and I were chatting about lean manufacturing and robots, we briefly went off topic and ventured into the Internet of Things and big data. Well, he went off topic and I just enjoyed the ride.

A benefit frequently cited by proponents of big data is that it makes reams of data available to anybody, anywhere. Morgan questions whether such accessibility is a good thing.

His concern? That so much data made available at engineers’ fingertips, perhaps viewed on their desktop computer in an office, will keep them from going to the plant floor (also known as “going to the gemba” in lean parlance) to find out what is really going on. He worries that these engineers instead will believe they have the whole picture, rendering a shop-floor trip moot.

That would be a bad thing, Morgan says.

“You learn so much more than can possibly be contained in a page of data by going out to the shop floor and talking to the people who are doing the work, or maybe doing the work yourself,” he says. “I have not found a way to replace that kind of deep knowledge with any kind of data, no matter how big it is.”

By no stretch is he discounting the importance of data. It absolutely helps everybody better understand process capability. There is no doubt that it helps decision-makers make more-informed decisions.

But it does not eliminate the need to go to the plant floor and see what is going on firsthand. There needs to be a balance, Morgan says.

“I joke with engineers all the time: What’s the most important tool?” he says. “It’s a good pair of shoes so that you can do a lot of walking on the plant floor. I don’t think you can replace that with technology.”

What might you find on a visit to the shop floor? You may discover that the only reason your process looks capable is that someone has developed a workaround to a poorly designed process. If that workaround gives way, you’re in a whole heap of immediate trouble, compounded by the longer-term pain of now having to develop a process that works as it should.

That is the type of issue big data is not going to alert you to.

That is the kind of problem you discover when you go out to the floor and talk to people.

“My fear is that [big data] is going to create a false sense of security that is going to keep people from going and seeing. You don’t know what you don’t know,” he says.

I think Morgan could very well be right. I can envision such scenarios playing out if manufacturers aren’t careful, if they get too complacent that the data tells the full tale.

You’ve been warned.

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