Wisdom for the ages/Wise advice for aspiring process engineers

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Process Engineers study how things get built.

People who aspire to become process engineers may benefit from following these recommendations.[1]

The first step in preparing to become a process engineer is to become curious about process design.

Study process design everywhere you go; at restaurants, theaters, shopping, the car wash, the bank, manufacturing operations, distribution operations, customer service operations, creative design studios, political campaigns, getting to work, committee meetings, walking in the woods, and observing nature. Determine how it all works and why it is the way it is.

For each process identify: the purpose of the process, the beginning of the process, the end of the process. For each process step identify: the inputs, the transformation, and the outputs. Evaluate each process step to determine: the value added, the delay, the queues, the waste generated, and opportunities for error.

Document processes you encounter. Use words only, flowchart only, and a combination of flowchart and words. Add detail where it is needed and remove detail where it is not needed.

For each process step you identify, ask: Why is it being done the way it is? Consider alternative implementations. What is automated? What is the role of each person? Why this mix?

Distinguish the essential process steps—where each operation must be performed exactly in the way it is being performed—and the process steps where alternative ways of working produce the same outcome. Rewrite (or redraw) your process description to emphasize and constrain the essential process steps while unconstraining (or perhaps even omitting) the other process steps.

Determine how to: simplify the process, how to make the process more reliable, how to reduce the delay caused by the process, how to increase the throughput of the process, how to reduce the waste created by the process.

Study and learn system archetypes. Read “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge and study the appendix. Improve your system thinking skills.

Understand all interactions as part of a dynamic system. Identify the stocks and flows. Where are the delays and feedback loops?

Know that all organizations have three macro processes:

  1. Strategic planning – what business are we in?
  2. New product development – what unique product and services do we make available?
  3. Order to cash – how do we identify customer needs and what steps do we take to fulfill those needs?

Identify each of these in any organization you observe. (Hint: the first two are often trivial or defaulted in many simple organizations.)

Learn Cooper’s stage gate process as an archetype for new product development. Map the actual development process steps to Cooper’s stage-gate model. Determine when divergent thinking is needed, and when convergent thinking is needed.

Study lean manufacturing. Learn to apply the archetype to every system you observe.

Integrate qualitative and quantitative thinking. Use qualitative thinking to understand the overall design intent of each step, process, and system. Use quantitative thinking to measure, evaluate, and improve each.

Understand process capability. Estimate it (quickly, in your head) for every process you encounter.

Master problem solving tools including: the seven basic tools of quality: flow chart, check sheet, cause effect diagram, root cause analysis, Pareto chart, histogram, scatter diagram, and statistical tools including control charts.

Become familiar with the seven management and planning tools.

Study statistics.

Study operations research.

Study the ISO 9000 quality management standard.

Study and write an application for the Shingo prize for Operational Excellence.

Study and write an application for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Stay hungry, stay foolish!

  1. This work is adapted from materials originally posted to Quora, by permission of the author.