What New Engineers Should Know About Problem Solving

Melisa Buie, the director of operations at Coherent Inc., published a very helpful book for new engineers just entering the workforce entitled Problem Solving for New Engineers: What Every Engineering Manager Wants You to Know. The book focuses on developing a strategy for minimizing, eliminating, and finally controlling variation.

During a recent conversation with Melisa, I asked her: “What hinders new engineers most regarding problem solving?” Here is her complete response:

Problem solving requires a paradigm shift for most scientists and engineers when they transition from the academic world of memorization, retention, and recitation of knowledge to a creative more fluid kind of thinking. From our pre-kindergarten interactions to the day we graduate with a BS or MS degree, we are taught that knowledge rules. Knowledge is the most important thing. In school, the person who knows the most wins or gets the ‘A.' We are taught that knowing is the most important thing. Knowing is valued most.

In school, that knowledge is gained from our books, from our professors, experts, or journals. We participate in science through demonstrations and labs, both of which are scripted with known results. We are told when to watch, when to pay attention, and when to record our findings. These experiments are then recorded in nice packages called lab reports and graded. Our grades are determined by the care we take in recording our findings in the templates provided. Our labs are recipes that we follow.

Helen Keller wrote: “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” Problem solving is about handling things and gaining kinship with the world. Problem solving is about discovery and creativity. The sooner we can flip the switch from being told something to figuring it out for ourselves -- discovering for ourselves -- the sooner we begin to really enjoy science and engineering.

Don’t get me wrong, knowing is important but equally important, after graduation and joining the workforce, is gaining confidence with handling things. The nice thing is that we don’t have to give up our quest for knowledge -- if we make the leap to discovery, we begin to experience discovering for ourselves. 

For the engineers reading this post: What hindered or helped your problem-solving skills when you entered the workforce?