Improving Engineering with WHY, WHAT, HOW

Improving Engineering with WHY, WHAT, HOWWhen asked how to improve manufacturing, the recipe is clear: lean. When asked how to improve engineering, the recipe: there isn’t one. Each engineering improvement effort is unique; though there are common themes and building blocks, each has its own fingerprint.

Each company has its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; each company has unique products and markets; each its own goals; each its own culture; each its own future state. Informed by uniqueness, the recipe is unique. To create your unique improvement recipe, I suggest WHY, WHAT, HOW.


Before your engineering improvement recipe can be formed, the fundamental shaping question must be answered. Take a breath, fire up your laptop, put on your headphones, and queue up your best music. Type this question:

WHY does our business demand we improve engineering?

Now, type the answer. (Literally.) Use nouns and verbs to explain why engineering must improve. If you can’t, stop. Without a clear, concise, jargon-free answer nothing can be done to advance the cause. (Though there can be plenty of activity, there can be no progress.) Without the WHY, you cannot pass GO. You must create a clear, concise WHY.

Seek out help from trustworthy people to create the WHY. Don’t move forward until you understand it well enough to explain it to the engineering organization. Now, with WHY in place, it’s time for WHAT.


Informed by WHY, it’s time for WHAT. Secure a quiet spot, scare up a big piece of paper, and grab your favorite pen. On the top of the page, write this question:

WHAT does engineering improvement look like?

Now, draw the picture. (Literally.) Use sketches, scribbles, arrows, blocks, and people’s names to describe what improved engineering looks like. Sit in the future and describe it in present tense. Once drawn, review it with folks you trust, revise it, and repeat. If you cannot draw the future, keep trying. Once you have something, review it with folks you trust, revise it, and repeat. Don’t move forward until you draw it clearly enough to explain it to the engineering organization. And with WHAT in place, it’s time for HOW.


The first step of HOW is similar to WHAT. Pick up your favorite pen, come back to the now, and draw a picture of today’s engineering capabilities, engineering’s current state. Again, use scribbles, blocks, arrows, and names.

The second step is to define the difference between future and current states. With future and current state pictures side-by-side, perform a mathematical subtraction: future state – current state. The difference is HOW. A block in future state that’s not part of the current state is a new thing that must be created; a new arrow in the future state is an activity, interaction, or relationship that must be created; a new person, named or unnamed, represents new thinking. Things that appear in both states are strengths to build on.

The third step, prioritization. Start here:

What engineering strengths will we build on?

It’s important start with strengths. It sends the right message to the engineering organization: we must build on build on what works, build on what got us here. Engineers need to know that, fundamentally, their work is good, and major building blocks are in place, the foundation is solid.

What development areas will we improve?

Take care with this one. To avoid a demoralized engineering team, there should be fewer development areas than strengths. Though there may be many development areas, call out only the most important.

What’s the right first bite?

The most important improvements are those that strongly support the WHY; there’s a natural sequence of things (socks before shoes) that must be respected; and there’s a finite amount of work that can be done. Use these three lenses as the start of a prioritization framework.

Building blocks for engineering improvement are the same for all companies: people, tools, and processes, but there are many types of people, countless engineering tools, and all processes can be improved. WHY, WHAT, HOW can help define your unique improvement fingerprint: the right people, the right tools, the right processes, shaped by your unique company goals, and improved in right sequence.

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Mike ShipulskiDr. Mike Shipulski (certfied TRIZ practioner) brings together the best of TRIZ, Axiomatic Design, Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (2006 DFMA Contributor of the Year), and lean to develop new products and technologies. His blog can be found at Shipulski On Design.

Mike Shipulski




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No Comments

  1. Glen on September 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I like this post 🙂

    I have tried this before, but am going to go away sometime this week and try it out again using your prompts. Wish me luck!

    Thank you!

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