Who owns gumption?

Had an interesting exchange with a high level guy at a well known company this week. (Sorry, that’s all you get in the way of hints.) Most failed or stalled CAE software implementations have nothing to do with the software. The problem often stems from user apathy and lack of management directive.

After meeting with the management and engineering teams reporting to this guy, I had a pretty good idea of why CAE had not been well adopted. Many of the Engineers and their managers feel that extreme current workloads and shrinking design cycles do not allow for time to slow down and learn a new, enabling technology.

“No one is going to let us take the time to learn this when we have active fires to put out now.”

When I show up in “Mr. Fixit” mode, I generally start with the Executives and then move down through Engineering Managers preaching the importance of Management support in every successful CAE rollout.

Sometimes the Engineers just need to hear a simple VP or Presidential statement:

“We are serious about this upfront CFD initiative. We’ve invested in this tool. And, we’ve invested in you. I’m really excited to see what you will produce. Can’t wait to see some of these results and images in the project reports crossing my desk.”

Sometimes the Engineers need less of a carrot and more of a stick:

“CFD usage is now a mandatory milestone in our phase gate process.”

I generally start with more of a focus on injecting CFD on the GANTT chart or official process timeline. If your company is process driven, you are shooting yourself in the foot by ignoring this. After finishing my rap on the subject for the guy, he sat back in his chair with a confused look on his face. I thought, “uh oh… we’re going nowhere here. He’s going to disagree. I’ve failed.”

Then, he surprised me. “Well, yeah. We’re looking to implement a serious phase gate product development process here. Right on, we’ll make sure to add specific milestones for CFD… I’m more concerned that our people don’t think they have the permission to spend time learning new skills. Nobody said they have to work exactly 40 hours. Stick around a couple extra hours now and then and work on it.”

I thought, “Great… he must be an ass to work for!”
Then, he said a couple things that made me stop and think.

“We shouldn’t need to dictate usage. Guys should see that this will improve their own productivity and be willing to invest their own effort in learning it. It’s about going the extra mile. It’s what people do when they want to get ahead. They don’t just punch a clock.”

I sat quiet for a second and thought back to my days as an Engineer. In particular, I thought about the Saturday afternoon I set a bag of microwave popcorn on fire at the office while exploring CFdesign (back at v3, baby!):

I grabbed the bag by the coolest edge and ran outside to throw it in the parking lot. Then, I heard a sickening click as the door locked behind me. The fire alarms went off, and the local firehouse dispatched four trucks. I had left my keycard and cellphone on my desk inside. I was the only person in the building that day. Everyone else was at home enjoying the weekend!

CFD was successful for my company back then because I spent my own time and effort learning it. Nobody made me do that. Nobody would have suggested that I come in on my own time to do anything business related. But, I did it anyway. I still carry that trait today.

Sounds good, but some might suggest that we’re simply asking Joe Engineer to martyr himself for the good of the company. I asked this guy, “Ok, I buy that. but do you think the people here know that self-motivated self-improvement will be recognized and rewarded?”

Again, he had a confused look on his face. “I should hope so. When you go the extra mile at this company, you get more raises and more promotions. I don’t give a crap how long you’ve been here.”

Do his people really know that? I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know them well enough to answer that… and it’s not really my place to press the issue.

I did, however, find a new ingredient for my “upfront CFD success” recipe:

If you are in management, make it wildly clear that personal gumption will be rewarded under your watch.

I’m not suggesting that you tell people they’ll get a raise if they use your new upfront CFD tool. That won’t work. You’ll sound like an idiot.

Really, this isn’t just about upfront CFD software. You want this attitude to infuse everything done at your company. I can think of a few small ways to get it rolling:

  • Invite an Engineer With Gumption (EWG) to join you and the CEO for a private lunch to learn about the cool stuff he’s doing.
  • Bring the CEO or VP of Sales by the EWG’s desk and offer some public praise for raising the technology bar.
  • Give promotions & opportunities to the EWG without regard to seniority.
  • Send the EWG to that coveted Vegas trade show event.
  • Rubber stamp all purchasing requests for this EWG. Make things difficult for the loafers.
  • Actually tell the EWG that you genuinely appreciate her effort.
  • Feature the EWG’s profile (with picture) on your website.

Get creative. My main takeaway here is that both Management and Engineering bear responsibility for weaving proactive process improvement into the fabric of the corporate culture. GANTT Chart commandments absolutely must be put in place, but the Engineers need to take ownership of their own gumption, too.