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The Increasing Volatility of Engineering Work

Today, engineers are working longer and harder than ever. A simple afternoon phone call about a product issue turns into a fire drill, deprioritizing all other work. Soon it escalates into staying at the office late, or worse yet, the entire weekend.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar for engineers. For many, the root cause might seem to be layoffs sparked by the recession. To start identifying the root of the problem, the impact of layoffs on the engineering organization is a good place to begin.

The Incremental Increase in an Engineer’s Workload

Because many engineering organizations are running lean, they have fewer people to carry the same workload. That translates into an incremental increase in the amount of work for every engineer. Some go from eight to ten hours in their workday. Others shift from ten to twelve hours. But that doesn’t account for the occasional fire drill that disrupts all other work. Where does the spike come from?

The Inherent Nature of Engineering a New Product

Designing new products often involves the development of new systems, hardware and many other things. Anything that is new in that development effort will likely have issues at some point. The key question is this: when are they caught and subsequently fixed?

Analysis, testing, qualification, certification and other efforts are made to catch any issues as early as possible. However, despite all those efforts, some of those issues will proceed unchecked past design release. Later in the development process, those issues turn into full-blown problems. No matter whether they are caught in sourcing, production or even after delivery or launch, problems return to engineering as fire drills in the form of design rework.

The Impossibility of Planning for Design Rework

Most engineering leaders are aware of this reality of engineering. There will be some amount of design rework that needs to be addressed. The problem is in planning for that design rework. Why? It can vary dramatically. One week it might total to forty hours of work. The next week, it might be five hours. Engineering leaders could allocate a certain amount of hours per week to address design rework. But what happens if the actual time spent on design rework is less than the planned time? As a result, most engineering organizations do the simplest thing: they don’t plan for design rework.

The Volatile and Disruptive Influence of Design Rework

Because engineering is running lean, there is already an incremental increase in work. With no time allocation to design rework, any fire drill equates to a long day. When an engineer goes to work, they often have little idea of when they are coming home. A straightforward ten-hour day means they get to eat dinner at home. A catastrophic eighteen-hour day translates to getting home late. This dramatic volatility in workload is the direct result of the inability to plan for design rework.

To be clear, however, fire drills and design rework don’t just affect en engineer’s quality of life. If the number of fire drills becomes a barrage, then the engineer is constantly distracted from their day-to-day new design work. As a result, the quality of design suffers, further feeding the cycle of product issues proceeding past design release, where they turn into full-blown problems and cause yet more fire drills.

The Challenge of Volatility in Engineering Work

  • Product issues that proceed past design release turn into full-blown problems downstream. Then they return to engineering as fire drills and design rework. This affects the morale of the organization. It also affects the quality of new design work. Engineering leaders must find a way to minimize disruptive design rework.