Tag Archives: engineering

Robots for Health Care from Toyota

Japan has an extremely rapidly aging population. This increases the need for health care and for assistance with everyday tasks from the elderly. Japan is also among the leading countries for developing robots for health care and living assistance.

I have written about the efforts to have robots fill some needs in Japan previously, on this management blog and also my partner Curious Cat Engineering blog: Toyota Develops Thought-controlled Wheelchair (2012), Toyota’s Partner Robot (2007), Toyota Human Support Robot (2012) and Pepper, A Social Robot from Softbank (2017).

Most often innovation efforts take the form of understanding the jobs your customers are using your products and service for now and developing new solutions to delight those customers. This is difficult for companies to pull of successfully.

Occasionally innovation involves meeting completely new needs of customers. For example Toyota started as a loom company and is now known as a car company. Making such a radical change is not often successful.

Will Toyota be able to add robots to the products it produces successfully? I believe they have a chance. But it won’t be easy. Obviously (as shown in posts on my blog for the last ten years) I respect Toyota’s management system. That gives them a chance to be successful. The product development system is going to be critical (ideas found in: Toyota Engineering Development Process and How to Develop Products like Toyota).

Toyota Sends Robots To The Hospital

Toyota demoed its Welwalk WW-1000 robot, a machine that can rehabilitate stroke victims some 60% faster than regular physiotherapy. The company also showed glimpses of other robotic technologies, for instance a Human Support Robot that picks up stuff, draws curtains, and performs other menial tasks a bedridden patient would normally need to call a nurse for.

Toshiyuki Isobe, chief of Toyota’s robotics lab, said that the company is not fixated on being a car company. “Toyota started as a maker of looms, and only got in to cars later,” Isobe said. “Our mission always was to make practical things that serve a purpose. If there is a need for mass produced robots, we’ll make them.”

image of the Toyota support system for rehabilitation of walking in stroke victims

image of the Toyota Welwalk system

Related: Innovation at ToyotaMore on Non-Auto ToyotaDelighting CustomersToyota Engineers a New Plant: the Living Kind (to fight pollution)

Bell Labs Designing a New Phone System Using Idealized Design

I remember hearing this same story when Russ Ackoff spoke at the Hunter Conference on Quality (which was named in honor of my father) in Madison, Wisconsin.

If you haven’t heard this story you are in for a treat. And if you haven’t heard Russell Ackoff before you get to enjoy a great storyteller.

"Tape" of Ackoff’s Bell Lab Lecture at the US Navy.

If you would limit yourself to paying attention to 5 thinkers to advance your understanding of managing organizations Ackoff should be one of them. Of course, many managers don’t even try to learn from 5 leading management thinkers to do their jobs better over their career. So for many people just learning from Ackoff, Deming, Scholtes etc. they would be far ahead of the path they are now for their career. Of course you are not limited to learning from 5 people so you can learn from more if you want to be a better manager and leader.

I probably remember a great deal from maybe 5 talks from the more than 5 years I attended the Hunter Conference (and they were the best conferences I have attended – this might explain why the last conference I attended was maybe 7 years ago). This was one of them. And I realized that Ackoff was someone I could learn a great deal from and it caused me to learn a great deal from Russ Ackoff over the next decade.

Watch the video for much more but the basic idea of idealized design is to create a new design for a product, service or the organization based on existing feasibility but without the constraints of the existing setup. Then you can use that ideal to figure out a plan to move from the existing state to that idealized design. Russell Ackoff co-authored a good book on the topic: Idealized Design.

Related: Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell Labs (2006)Corporations Are Not Led By Those Seeking to Maximize Shareholder Value, Russ AckoffTransformation and Redesign at the White House Communications AgencyRussell L. Ackoff: 1919 -2009Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingDesigning a New Organization (2005)

Encouraging the Next Generation of STEM Professionals

In the most recent ASQ Influential Voices post, Bill Troy, ASQ CEO, asks: how should we encourage the next generation of STEM Professionals? I addressed a similar question in: Future Engineers and Scientists, which provides many details on this question.

The advantages of gaining science, technology, engineering and math skills (STEM) are fairly well known. However, even so, that is something to emphasize in order to encourage the next generation. While it is fairly well known it still helps to re-enforce and expand on the existing understanding. Some posts from my science and engineering blog on that topic: Engineering Graduates Earned a Return on Their Investment In Education of 21% (the highest of any discipline, math was next); Earnings by College Major, Engineers and Scientists at the Top; Career Prospect for Engineers Continues to Look Positive.

STEM careers often appeal to kids and teenagers (I Always Wanted to be Some Sort of Scientist, Apply to be an Astronaut).

Sadly we often discourage them with unnecessarily challenging education hurdles. It is true the education path for STEM is more challenging than for most careers. That is a reality that won’t change. If people are turned off by hard work, they likely wouldn’t like most STEM careers anyway. So that reality I think is fine. But the design of STEM education could be greatly improved to avoiding turning off many people who would enjoy the education and a career if the education process were better. I have also written about this previously: Improving Engineering Education, Primary School Science Education in China and the USA, Innovative Science and Engineering Higher Education, Infinity Project: Engineering Education for Today’s Classroom (providing middle school, high school, and early college engineering curricula), Engineering Education in the 21st Century, Research findings Contradict Myth of High Engineering Dropout Rate, Fun k-12 Science and Engineering Learning.

Those with STEM degrees have better career options than others (in terms of nearly everything: higher pay, lower unemployment and higher satisfaction with their careers). Some of the career options are more rigid than an average career, but many are actually more flexible and still have all the benefits. They have the opportunity for many rewarding jobs. This is of more importance for a sad reason: our failure to create organizations with a priority placed on respect for people.

Getting a STEM degree requires that students see the appeal of gaining those degrees and many do. Many students are turned off by either the hard work required to get such degrees or the less than optimal STEM education process (which often makes it much harder and also much less inspiring than required due to poor educational systems).

While continuing to promote STEM careers to the young is helpful and wise, we are doing this fairly well. Of course, everything can be done better, and we should keep striving to improve. But the main focus, In my opinion, should be on better education from k-12 all the way through the PhD level for STEM. It would also help if we stopped electing anti-science politicians.

Related: Science and Engineering Advantages for EconomiesS&P 500 CEO’s: Engineers Stay at the TopMathematicians Top List of Best Occupations (top 6 are all STEM careers)Looking at the Value of Different College Degrees

Toyota Understands Robots are Best Used to Enhance the Value Employees Provide

Toyota has always seen robotics as a way to enhance what staff can do. Many USA executives think of robotics as a way to reduce personnel. Toyota wants to use the brainpower of employees to continually improve the organization. Toyota wants to free people for monotonous or dangerous work to let them use their minds.

Humans Steal Jobs From Robots at Toyota

Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

“We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again,” Kawai said. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

Kawai, 65, started with Toyota during the era of Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System envied by the auto industry for decades with its combination of efficiency and quality. That means Kawai has been living most of his life adhering to principles of kaizen, or continuous improvement, and monozukuri, which translates to the art of making things.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

We need more companies to learn from the executives at Toyota. They show real respect for people. They are not focused on how much they can extract from the corporate treasury to build themselves castles at the expense of other employees, customers and stockholders as far too many USA executives are.

Toyota has been extremely innovative in investing in robotics as human assistants (partially this is due to the extreme demographic problems Japan faces): Toyota Develops Thought-controlled WheelchairToyota’s Partner RobotToyota Winglet – Personal Transportation Assistance.

Related: Webcast on the Toyota Development ProcessDon’t Hide Problems in ComputersAkio Toyoda’s Message Shows Real Leadership

Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation System

The job of managers is to create a robust system that delivers value to customers. A system that fails constantly (fails during the continual variation the system faces) is a failed system. Bad weather is part of the variation airlines face. Any management system has to cope with the variation that it faces. The management system must be designed and managed so that the organization successfully delivers value to customers under the conditions the organization will face.

The air travel system in the USA is a disgrace for so many reasons it is hard to catalogue them all. One, of many, is how fragile the system is; causing massive (nation-wide) customer harm multiple times a year due to weather. Weather is sometimes bad. If your organization fails when there is bad weather, fix that problem (make your system robust in the face of bad weather), because you are not going to be able to fix the weather to let your un-robust system be effective as it is.

Instead airlines only response seems to be to get their friends in government to approve anti-competitive mergers to eliminate competition and allow failed organizations to become even larger and harm even more people. Airlines should design robust systems that work in the environment they will face (which they don’t do now).

Their planes don’t fall out the sky when they face bad weather. The engineers behind designing planes have made them very robust. Pilots have been trained to handle variation they will face. And yes, the system has been designed with adjustments to avoid flying into conditions that are risky.

The safety of the air transportation system is very good. The management of airlines in most every other aspect is pitiful, and has been for decades.

The managers running the airlines have done amazingly bad job of creating robust organizations capable of delivering given the variation they know they will face (weather, mechanical problems, IT problems, etc.) for decades. Poor management is the cause of these failures that result in harm to customers. Weather is not the cause. Poor management, over decades, resulting in incredible fragile systems that constantly punish customers is the responsibility of the airlines. And they have done an incredibly bad job at creating a robust system to deliver value to customers.

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Introductory Videos on Using Design of Experiments to Improve Results

The video shows Stu Hunter discussing design of experiments in 1966. It might be a bit slow going at first but the full set of videos really does give you a quick overview of the many important aspects of design of experiments including factorial designed experiments, fractional factorial design, blocking and response surface design. It really is quite good, if you find the start too slow for you skip down to the second video and watch it.

My guess is, for those unfamiliar with even the most cursory understanding of design of experiments, the discussion may start moving faster than you can absorb the information. One of the great things about video is you can just pause and give yourself a chance to catch up or repeat a part that you didn’t quite understand. You can also take a look at articles on design of experiments.

I believe design of experiments is an extremely powerful methodology of improvement that is greatly underutilized. Six sigma is the only management improvement program that emphasizes factorial designed experiments.

Related: One factor at a time (OFAT) Versus Factorial DesignsThe purpose of Factorial Designed Experiments

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Respect for People: Optimize for Developer Happiness at Etsy

The webcast above discusses the culture of software engineering at Etsy (a very popular site providing a marketplace and community for small businesses – artisan focus). Some of the key points of the talk. Etsy trusts employees. Etsy’s strategy is to optimize for developer happiness. Etsy has lunches twice a week where employees build community.

Etsy sees code as craft. The echos Etsy’s value on authorship: “the people behind what we buy make commerce meaningful.” It re-inforces the belief that work has meaning and is valued and should have intrinsic value to those doing the work, people should have the opportunity to take pride in their work.

Chad Dickerson discussed the importance Peter Drucker placed on connecting people to the value provided to customer. Etsy takes steps to connect employees to the value provided to customers, including emphasizing the community of the company and the customers of Etsy.

Related: Respect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkMistake Proofing Deployment of Software CodeBuild an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes

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Engineering Management Thoughts Based on Facebook Experience

Yishan Wong is the new CEO at Reddit, an excellent social media site I have written about previously. In looking at his background I found some interesting articles he wrote on engineering management based on his experience at Facebook engineering.

He starts with “make hiring your number one priority, always.” To me this is a specific knowledge worker issue. Hiring is always important but the importance in knowledge worker settings (especially when there is quite a bit of poaching good people going on) is elevated. The system thinking affects are obvious from his article including: “Succesfully hiring the best people at all levels means that down the road, your internal promotion pipeline is strong.” This is especially important given his emphasis on promotion from within – of course he wasn’t hired from within for the CEO job at Reddit :-).

Of course as a Deming management advocate I appreciate his article stating process should be implemented by those who do the work. I do strongly disagree with his seeming desire for unformed processes. I strongly believe making processes clear and consistent is critical as is an effective culture of continual improvement.

He further writes: “All external management hires must be able to write code and show a high level of technical proficiency, up to and including the head of the technical department. If the company is a technology company, this should also include the CEO.” I disagree with this idea. I do agree it is preferable. My belief is that one reason (there are many others) we have done so poorly at improving management over the years is we treat it as the promotion path for technical experts (programers, accountants, production, sales…). They often end up focused not on the management of the system but mucking around in details others should take care of. I do believe in the value of a long history of dealing with the company. It is very valuable to know how to write excellent code, I just don’t see that as the top requirement.

Related: Learn to Code to Help Your CareerProductivity Improvement for Entrepreneurs (and Everybody Else Really)Involve IT Staff in Business Process ImprovementThe Myth of the Genius ProgrammerManagement sub-reddit

Learn to Code to Help Your Career

I believe there are big benefits to knowing how to code (programing, software development). What is possible for your organization is often significantly impacted by understanding how to properly use software (and create it, coding, when needed). The lack of understanding of software is a significant problem not just for those wanting a job coding (that are available for those with the right skills) but also for those making decisions about what the organization should do.

The profound ignorance (meant not in a pejorative way but in the descriptive way) of software is a significant problem for managers today. The critical role of software in our organizations is only growing. And the importance of understanding software (which coding provides in a way no other learning does) is only increasing. My guess is a decade or two or three from now a understanding of coding will not be nearly as critical for managers. I am just guessing the nature of coding will be significantly changed and not understanding the details needed to code will not be as critical as it is today. Maybe I am wrong about the importance of understanding coding fading over time (it is more a feeling than a chain of logic I can clearly explain easily).

There are many indirect benefits of learning to code. In the same way that those with an education in engineering do very well in their careers overall, even if they take a path where they are no longer engineers a background in coding prepares you well for your career. Actually, similar to engineering, part of this effect may well be those that can graduate with an engineering degree and those that can be employed for several years as a software developer have skills and abilities that would have made them successful even if they didn’t pass through those experiences (still I think, those experiences to add to their success).

Good programmers have a strong tendency to think in ways that those interested in management improvement need (and, sadly, often lack): systems thinking, customer focus, efficiency focused [good coders often hate wasting their time and naturally despise non-value added steps], a willingness to speak up about things that need to be improved, a desire to make a difference, passion for what they do…

If you work along side good programmers these traits will be reinforced every day (this was my favorite part of my last job – working with great programmers that pursued these principles and re-enforced my doing so also). Yes there are also things you might have to temper in dealings with non-coders (being a bit kinder/less-direct about perceived failures, for example). Also some coders can be so engaged they expect an unsustainable commitment from peers (this is one of the great benefits of a good agile software development system – a focus on creating an environment for sustainable development [not expecting unreasonable effort/hours on the part of coders]).

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ASQ Influential Voices: Future Engineers and Scientists

As I mentioned previously, I will be posting on a topics raised by Paul Borawski, CEO, ASQ as part of ASQ Influential Voices. This month Paul’s post, New Bloggers, STEM & More, looks at the development of future engineers.

How can we, those who understand, use, and love science and technology, pass it along.

I have discussed this issue often, on one of my other blogs: Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog: Encouraging Curiosity in Kids, Passion for Mechanical Engineering (StoryCorps), Illusion of Explanatory Depth, Teaching Through Tinkering.

They are several critical paths to address in building our pipeline of future scientists and engineers. First we need to encourage kids to explore these areas. In my opinion, we currently do a pretty good job, sadly, of discouraging kids as much as we can. So reducing those barriers is key, then we need to actually build ways that help kids. We actually do have many good efforts in place to encourage kids to explore their natural curiosity (follow that link for tons of great organization: FIRST, Project Lead The Way, Engineering is Elementary, The Infinity Project etc.). This helps balance out the discouraging of students that our normal classrooms do. But the pool of kids we reach with these efforts now is far too small. And many are so turned off by our traditionally science education that no matter how much they enjoy outside science and engineering projects they are not willing to pursue science and engineering in school.

The next big area is undergraduate and graduate education. At this point we do a good job, for those willing to put up with the current model of education, which is not designed to encourage those who are interested. It is basically up to weed out any students not willing to put up with the current painful model of higher education for science and engineering. The system seems designed to wean out those who are not sufficiently willing to put up with the difficulties they are asked to face. If the only people that would benefit from science and engineering education are those that are willing to deal with the current system, then it might be fine. But I believe we have turned away hundreds of thousands of people that would have done great things with what they learned. I believe those that will not put themselves through the current system can offer great value. We will gain great benefits if we create a system that is designed to maximize the benefits to students.

There are good ideas for how to improve. But they are challenging. And we are not doing nearly enough experimenting to find good new models of engineering education. Some of my previous posts on science and engineering education: How the Practice and Instruction of Engineering Must ChangeWebcast: Engineering Education in the 21st Century by William Wulf (National Academy of Engineering President), Improving Engineering Education (Olin College of Engineering Experiment), Reforming Engineering Education, Carnegie Foundation Calls for Overhaul of Engineering Education.

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