When I teach project courses I often run an exercise that I call the Kaizen exercise. I challenge the class to a timed task that calls on their skills for self-organization and innovation. I challenge them again and again to complete the task in ever-shortening intervals. What starts as a two-minute task can be made arbitrarily short over a few iterations — five or six iterations in most classes, but shorter in some.
Sometimes, all that gets in the way of solving a problem is a lack of assuredness that the solution is even possible. We’re victims of the limitations of our experience and tutelage, and what those have portended for our experiences as professionals. So becoming informed about the boundaries of one’s practice and discipline are one way to raise your performance level. It’s not so much because it helps you learn how to do the things you learn about, but because it expands your horizons of what is possible. Steven Johnson, in “Where Good Ideas Come From,” (Penguin, 2010) calls this the adjacent possible. “The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries,” Johnson writes. “Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open.”
The new head of Toyota, Katsuaki Watanabe, set impossible goals for the company when the mantle of leadership fell to him. To create a car that could cross the United States on a single tank of gas. To create a car that by design could not harm someone in an accident. These impossible goals are worthy in their own right. But it goes without saying that it’s not about achieving those two feats, but about communicating a mindset of continuous improvement.
It’s a well-known human phenomenon that people change their appetite for an impossible task when faced with the reality, or even the possibility, that it has already been done. It is this, rather than development of human evolution or technique, that probably explains the frequent recurrence of sub-4-minute miles after Roger Bannister first broke the barrier in 1954 (four more did it within about a year, more than 20 leading up to 1960, and countless runners since them). Sir Hillary and Tenzing first climbed Everest in 1953; now, there are days when over 250 people try to make it to the summit.
Technology advances help too, of course, particularly in our field of engineering. Nature hasn’t yet caught up with Moore’s Law. Engineers should perhaps take pride that more of the advances in computer power and scale have come at the hands of hardware folks than for software folks.
I used to believe that it was management’s job to challenge a team but now believe that while management should be the cheerleaders, coaches and water-bearers in such efforts, that challenge ultimately must come from within. Great motivation is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Complacency is death, but ongoing self-directed exploration and sometimes irrational inquiry fuel progress.
It’s a great thought-provoker for reflection and a great conversation starter with colleagues: How many times in your career have you achieved what you once thought impossible? Make it a metric of your career to optimize the number of times you achieve the impossible. Doing what is possible is a matter only of science, since science is all about repeatability and following where others have gone before. The ultimate in innovation is doing the impossible, and doing the impossible perhaps takes an engineer.