Success Strategies - December - 2018

Engineering 101: Don’t Postpone a Step

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Today, as my motorcycle crested the hill above Camarillo, CA, a woman in the car next to me told me that I’d lost a saddlebag. Glancing down I could see it was true. The left-side bag was gone! I checked the right and it was still there. Then I said about a dozen cuss words inside my helmet and pulled over.

I wasn’t cursing the bike, the bag, or the motorcycle “gods.” I was cursing my own negligence. Dang it! This one is my fault. When I packed the bags this morning and placed them on the bike, I didn’t secure them. I’d get back to that. So, I went on with my preparations: checked the tires, the oil, the fittings, the gas. Did all the usual things a responsible rider would do for a safety inspection. Then I shined my helmet face shield, my windshield, and my mirrors. All set…

It was no surprise to me that the bags needed to be secured. They have latches built just for that. But I interrupted the pattern. I postponed a step. Of course I knew better. But I’m a pro at this! I’ve ridden 150,000 miles on motorcycles all over the world. I’m a Charter Life Member of the American Motorcyclist Association. I’ve got this!

And yet, there I was, walking up and down the side of California’s Highway 101, retrieving badly damaged and completely useless items that had been my luggage and supplies just moments before.

Any seasoned mechanic will tell you that engineering has patterns that must be followed. When you disassemble a unit, the sequence in which you place and replace the parts really, really matters. When you write down the steps in a process, it isn’t okay to just have all the parts right. You must also have the sequence right.

Otherwise, like my dad once did, you’ll have extra parts left once you’ve assembled the new gas grill (or transmission.)

This applies to the rest of your life, too. For example, airline pilots must complete the preflight checklist in the right order every single time. They know that the process is more trustworthy than the finest pilot.

And at home: Imagine applying the concept of random organization to communication. Just get all the words right and it won’t matter in what order you say them. “Honey, you look nice in that dress,” is not the same as, “Honey, in that dress, you look nice.” (Implying that, until that dress came along, she did not look so nice.) Don’t try that at home!

As a manager, this absolutely applies to you. When you only correct people and seldom compliment their good work, they get the impression that you don’t value or respect them. Good leaders always find a way to acknowledge and appreciate what’s right before they focus on correcting what’s wrong. It doesn’t take long but it sure matters to the way others hear you.

This isn’t just engineering 101, it’s also Life 101. Process, order, or sequence can make all the difference between success and disaster. Today, I got overconfident in my process and was sure I’d remember to latch the bags to the bike. But life doesn’t work that way. Nor does even the mature, enlightened, human mind. We’re all capable of monumental screw-ups by merely interrupting a process that we know will work.

When you’re at a workbench, I’m sure you know the flow. You’re the master of your drivetrain domain. You don’t skip steps. That’s what defines you as a pro. But do you do it in the rest of your life? Do you handle your finances with the same discipline? Keep the receipts, log them in, balance the account each month, check the account statements for accuracy… before the due date?

How about your fitness? When do you stretch and exercise? What’s the order you follow? It’s none of my business how you handle those, but it is totally your business to do them well.

So, the next time you’re teaching a new technician how to do a job, make a point of respecting the process and showing them that it isn’t the pieces alone but also the process — the flow — that determines the right outcome. I hope never to see you walking along Highway 101 as a result of your experience and confidence.

Jim Cathcart is the author of 19 books and a guy who usually follows what he knows will work, though sometimes he gets a little cocky. Jim is a long-time contributor to GEARS Magazine and ATRA, and a friend to everyone who wants to become more successful. Contact him for coaching, strategic advice, or speaking engagements at