Why an Engineer should run your HR: Risks of Not Learning, Part II

This is the long-awaited sequel to “The Risks of Not Learning” part I, which was all the way back in Jan 2012. Simply put: engineers, like farmers, are deeply wedded to objective truth because their work is embedded in the physical world.

As often commented in this blog, “when culture encounters physics, physics wins.” Toyota is justifiably famous for using advanced, often counter-intuitive measures of data analysis, such as the House of Quality, to improve esoteric elements of consumer satisfaction, like keeping a car door open on a hill. Countless aspects of our physical world,

  • weight (or mass)
  • spectral response of color
  • material melting points at given temperature and pressure

are empirical realities. They are not subject to whatever politically correct winds may be blowing across the bow of our ship of state. The central fact of objective truth is opinion doesn’t influence it. Gravity is still a constant, regardless of whether Greece defaults, governments create more fiat money or a candidate’s political machine commits sufficient election fraud to claim victory.

Perpetual juveniles or PJ’s go apoplectic at the thought of objective truth, because their carefully crafted worldview falls apart if they have to face the dual facts of living on this planet:

  • actions have consequences
  • rights come with responsibilities.

In this regard, engineers are similar to finance professionals and farmers. In finance, income less costs = profit (or loss). Creating off-book accounting nightmares is not a finance issue, it’s an ethics issue. As an example, it’s not opinion, we have empirical evidence that Timothy Geithner¬†can’t count. Heck, he can’t even figure out how to file his taxes (or at least pay someone to do it properly for him), but I digress.

For a farmer to say to their spouse, “Yes honey, I planted the crop” has a easily-witnessed validation, unlike so much of what is passing for guidance, direction and leadership in the human capital or talent acquisition sectors over the past few minutes. See Ps 90:4 to make that mental leap from minute-to-month-to-year.

Objective truth (OT) is so refreshingly rare that spontaneous demonstrations of it break through the incessant chatter and capture the world’s attention, if only for a moment.

What is the OT in the video of the young NYC cop? Simply this: we are not units in the human collective. Each of us is to be cherished inherently for our own sake, not because of our looks, income, fame, power or any other measure.

Practical business considerations

Even more profoundly, any project manager with half-dozen projects under their belt understands that love is a decision not a feeling. Gifted professionals in both technology and business often get side-tracked when the music behind their words doesn’t harmonize with their worthwhile business goals.

Real Communication is driven by real listening.

Walter Ong gave a workshop back in Sacramento, Calif, in the fall of 1989 where he spent much of the day delivering two profound messages: writing transforms thought and love is essential to communication.

Whether it be with the butcher, baker or satellite maker, there has to be a certain love between us to make the connection, the bridge, that makes cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart) conversation possible. Ask yourself, do you withhold details from people you do not trust? Yes or yes?

Heart speaks to heart (cor ad cor loquitur) before
mind is open to mind.

How many times have you told your husband, ladies, “I know you are hearing but you’re not listening”? Nothing here is even remotely related to the sappy sentimentality that drives much of Hollywood. Does a Marine Corps Drill Sergeant love his men, yes or yes? Watching these objective truths of tough love play out in dozens of environments across four continents and two round-the-world deployments, has transformed my life.

Without this love, Ong contends, we may hear each other, yet we won’t “connect” in the manner that inspires hope, trust and confidence.

Much of leadership is delivered as words, yet rings hollow if not fulfilled by human action that resonates with love.

Cross-disciplinary insights

People in finance, operations, HR, chemistry, physics, logistics, all use a common tool, the telephone. Imagine if someone told us that a certain smartphone would only work for a left-handed 20-something female MBA in the Moroccan bakery industry yet not work for an ambidextrous 50-something male rancher on a sheep station Down Under? Wouldn’t they get laughed off the stage before even reaching the punchline?

Given that understanding, that the same tool perfectly fills a common need across wildly different industries, what leads people in the fields I listed above to think that they can get a true picture of the risk relationships across their entire business (large or small), if the tools they use look at risk in isolation? (e.g., this tool for finance, this tool for logistics, etc.)

Highly unlikely that you’ve ever heard an engineer say, “I’m no good with numbers,” yet we hear that all the time in the so-called soft-skills sector. Why is that acceptable? We would never hear the end of it if a Board Chairman or a Secretary of State said “I cannot read.”

One of my dearest friends has a doctorate in linguistics, yet as she rose to be Dean of a university, she certainly had to deal continually with budgets as much as, or more than, the academic side of the house.

With that in mind, the tagline for my company is engineering the human side of enterprise.

Without the practical operational experience that comes from being embedded in a project making tangible products, many people do not make the connections that people decisions require courage, a raw material that seems chronically in short supply in American business and political leadership today.

(I have excluded any software-related aspects in this post: unlike an ingot of steel or a pallet of paneling, we never run out of “bits to code with,” so the scarcity that has paradoxically driven human maturity and character development in physically-linked industries, is absent from the digital sector.)

As Casey Haksins and Peter Sims remark in The Most Efficient Die Early, it makes no sense to think about human capital and logistics in the same way – yet all too often we do.

[for a resilient, sustainably creative culture to flourish…]
It must be safe to tell the truth. ~Ed Catmull in How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity

In closing this collection of musings on the HR profession, it is left as an exercise for the reader (I used to hate that expression in textbooks!), to compare and contrast, Henry Petroski, (among his classics, To Engineer is Human) and Lou Adler, of One-Question Interview fame.

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Carpe Diem,


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