When is “cutting corners” good engineering versus derelict complacency?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 by Robert Cravotta

The recent articles claiming BP was demonstrating carelessness and complacency when the company cut corners in their well design got me thinking. Companies and design teams constantly improve their process in ways that cut costs and shrink schedules. This incremental process of “cutting corners” is the cornerstone of the amazing advances made in technology and improvements in our overall quality of life over the years. There seems to be a lot of second-guessing and criticism by people outside the design, build, and maintenance process when those incremental changes cause a system to cross the line between “good enough” and broken. The disaster that BP is in the middle of right now in the gulf is quite serious, but the magnitude of the disaster makes me think we should explore a thought exercise together.

What would be the cost/benefit if BP never “cut corners” on their well and rig designs? The immediately obvious answer might be, there would be no oil volcano at the bottom of the gulf right now and BP would be happily pumping oil out of that well instead of cleaning up after it. I say volcano because the words spill and leak seem so insufficient to describe the massive force required to spew out all of that oil despite the tremendous pressure pushing down on that opening by being under all of that water. A possible problem with the immediately obvious answer is that it ignores an essential implied assumption. While there might not be any oil pouring into the gulf, we might not be harvesting any of the oil either.

Let’s reword the question to make it more general. What would be the cost to society if everyone only engaged in ventures that would never find the line between good enough and broken? While raising my own children, I developed a sense of the importance that we all need to find the line between good enough and broken. I believe children do not break the rules merely to break the rules – I think they are exploring the edges and refining their own models of what rules are and why and when they should adhere to them. If we deny children the opportunity to understand the edges of rules, they might never develop the understanding necessary to know when to follow and when to challenge a rule.

This concept applies to engineering (as well as any human endeavor). If designers always use large margins in their designs, how will they know when and why they can or should not push those margins? How will they know if the margins are excessive (wasteful) or just right? My experience shows me that people learn the most from the failures, especially because it enables them to refine their models of how and why the world works the way it does.

I think one of the biggest challenges to “cutting corners” is minimizing the impact of when you cross the line to a failure precisely because you do not know where that line is. To me, derelict complacency depends on the assumption that the designer knew where the line to failure was and crossed it anyways. If my engineering career taught me anything, it taught me that we never know what will or will not work until we try it. We can extrapolate from experience, but experience does not provide certainty for everything we have not tried yet.

To an outsider, there might not be an easy to see difference between good engineering and derelict complacency. What are your thoughts on how to describe the difference between appropriate risk-assessed process improvement and derelict complacency? Can we use common failures in the lab to explore, refine, and communicate this difference so that we can apply it to larger disasters such as the oil in the gulf or even unintended acceleration in automobiles?

If you would like to suggest questions to explore, please contact me at Embedded Insights.

[Editor's Note: This was originally posted on the Embedded Master]


6 Responses to “When is “cutting corners” good engineering versus derelict complacency?”

  1. R.S. @LI says:

    “When is “cutting corners” good engineering versus derelict complacency?”
    1. safety
    2. safety
    3. safety

  2. R.J. @LI says:

    It takes far less time to do it right the first time than it does to fix it over and over again after you did it wrong.

  3. L.R. @LI says:

    There are plenty of very succesful “good-enough” technologies, far from perfect, but just right – ready in time and cost that does not exceed value, and there are plenty examples of failed attempts at making something that is “perfect”. (for this group TokenRing ring a bell?).

    Businesses are driven by profit, and thus they must weigh the cost of taking a risk vs. the cost of avoiding that same risk. There are many examples of bad risk calculations in either direction – sometime a risk is underestimated, which leads to a disaster taking the company down, other times, ompanies spend themselves to death by trying to avoid risks that are overestimated. Either way, the result is the same, and that is essentially the evolutionary process that we learn from, by trying to learn from the mistakes of failed companies while immitating those that are thriving.

    BP is a sad story IMO. Present law limits their liability to $75M per incident, and it was a huge mistake on their part to ignore the political pressure that could result from an environmental disaster making the liability limitation irrelevant. On the other hand, both BP and the goverment regulators were unaware of the special technical difficulties related to drilling at such a depth, thinking perhaps that drilling further away from shore is less risky.

    This is not entirely an engineering issue, but a combination of several disciplines that must all work for a business to succeed.

  4. P.B. @LI says:

    Cutting corners …. I thought engineers build scale models of bridges to test out strength and run simulations to see how making changes impact things. Are skyscrapers over engineered? Depends on the criteria for earthquakes, wind, planes crashing into the building …. I think people have managed to cut costs on building skyscrapers without having the buildings collapse.

    There was a car who cut costs on a gas tank that exploded (Pinto?) where they used some value for the loss of a life, but they found out that the lawsuits cost more than fixing the problem, and the lawsuits were higher than their calculations on loss of life.

    Do you want your doctor cutting corners when you in in the middle of open heart surgery? Does the airplane mechanic cut corners on the commercial jet engine repair? Or does the airline cut reserve fuel because it probably won’t be needed?

    I think that there are times and places that you don’t have the necessary experience, knowledge, and authority to cut corners. First you have to be able to do a job correctly. Once you master doing it correctly, you can optimize and find better solutions. You don’t find a cheaper solution the first or second time, when you don’t know all the consequences.

    This is why it is wrong for $$$ management to force technical decisions. Would you want your hospital to save money by not sterilizing operating room equipment? It certainly would generate more profit for the hospital, but the patients would suffer more.

    Ethics come into the equation. Unfortunately, business school tends not to reward ethics, as this does not maximize $$$.

  5. J.L. @LI says:

    Our job is to make things as simple as necessary but no more simple than the project requires.

  6. L.R. @LI says:

    When you say “cutting corners” it sounds negative, perhaps even sinister, but engineering is all about compromises between function and cost.
    Very few buildings can withstand the impact of a jet airliner, one exception is a buclear power plant building. Besides, who would want to live in an underground bunker or even afford one ? As to cars, under severe cirumstances they all may catch fire or crash their passenger if hit by a larger vehicle, but would anyone really like to drive a semi to work (or afford its fuel consumption) ?
    IThere are areas where a government is prescribing certain standards, then the engineers do not need to consider all the possible tradeoffs, and have instead to comply to a certain building code, which releives them from responsability in the event that a structure failed despite being built to code, e.g. because of an event exceeding the maximum specifications of the mandatory building standard. But there are engineers working for the government who put together these specifications and are in charge of making comprimises.
    It takes experience to excell in trade offs, which is why managerial positions are typically filled by experienced engineers who are authorized to decide.

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