The Gnat of Perfection


My father, John, is an engineer and spent most of his career as an Engineering Manager at what was then the British Steel Corporation in Teesside.

Redcar Blast Furnace

Redcar Blast Furnace. Photograph. BBC Tees

The problems he had to solve on the Steelworks are about as different from my day-to-day, of ensuring people can watch their favourite TV shows, as possible. But how we go about solving those problems has a lot of parallels.

“He who strains after the gnat of perfection will swallow the camel of unreadiness!” Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy 1904-10)

The above quote was always hung on the wall of my fathers office, and had come from one of his previous superiors who he greatly respected. He told me that it formed the basis of his whole career in engineering and management. It - and other ‘war stories’ - that he told me as a youngster, turned out to make a big impression on me too.

Some things - like Total Quality Management (a variation of Toyota’s lean manufacturing practices) - gave me an early feel for agile methodologies before they became widespread in the software industry. While others were almost allegories that stuck in my head and sometimes subconsciously, other times consciously have guided how I approach problems in my own career.

Here, I’ll paraphrase one of those stories, along with some of the lessons I drew from it.

Solving Problems Under Pressure

For part of his career, my Dad was responsible for transport at the Steel Works (trains and trucks carrying large cargoes of iron and steel around the site).

In this incident, some consultants had been brought in to design and lay a new road for transporting the huge 100 tonne payload, steel slab carriers between plants. And just a week after the new road was put to use, it had already started to fluidise (ie. the vast weight of the loaded trucks was causing the foundations of the road to move).

A Slab Carrier

Kress Slab Carrier. Photograph. Kress Corp

The Senior Engineers and others were speculating about what to do - closing the road for repairs would cost millions, and no-one was certain what to do to fix it. Spending weeks more to research the most efficient solution would have been the no-one-gets-fired-for-buying-ibm answer, but would have been extremely costly. And no-one wanted to take responsibility for making a decision that might look badly on them if it failed.

At this point my Dad got involved:

  1. He used his practical knowledge to propose how he would build a road like this that needs to support massive forces. Basically - deeper foundations with the biggest stone available in the bottom reducing in layers upwards.
  2. Arranged a quick prototype to the people who held the purse strings, in the form of a demonstration trench.
    • Starting at the foundation depth of the original road, then increasing to over double that, and testing by running the vehicles over it repeatedly. At 1 meter it fluidised, at 1.5 meters it was stable and at 2 meters it was solid.
  3. Time costs far more than materials in this situation, so keep it simple, but don’t try to make it perfectly efficient - use large rocks, and deeper foundations than might actually be required.
  4. He stood up and took responsibility for the plan he was suggesting. In front of superiors and peers, he transparently explained what and why he would do this, took responsibility on his own shoulders, and gained the authority to proceed in just 3 days against a background of huge ongoing losses.

What I Took Away From This

  • Trust your own judgement. And demonstrate this to others by taking responsibility for the outcome.
  • Fast turnaround often outweighs perfection.
  • Start with the simplest thing that could possibly work, and find out if that’s good enough.

A lot of the challenges we encounter in engineering are timeless, so even though the technologies we use change as the years go by, the underlying tactics for approaching problems don’t seem to.

And I’ll leave you with another great quote - this time one of my Dad’s own:

“For success you need someone to make a decision, and someone to back them.” John George Smith

And Just One More Thing

If you ever get the chance to walk around inside a SteelWorks, then jump at it. They’re one of the most awe-inspiring places. Like standing inside a cathedral with a volcano erupting next to you.

BOS Cathedral

BOS Cathedral. Photograph. Demps