23 DECEMBER 2015
The Engineer’s Toolbox - Using Questions to Solve Problems
Solving problems is a key feature of engineering. The types of problems encountered are varied and challenging, from providing a reliable supply of electricity to our homes and businesses to building rockets that can fly into space, and from maintaining bridges to designing new medical equipment. Problems of this kind generate the day-to-day work in engineering that is not usually seen by the public. Engineers ensure that our society functions and that things run smoothly, and it is only on the very rare occasion that something goes wrong that we think about engineering. The invisibility of engineering is a sign of its success.
Achieving this success requires appropriate tools. A stereotype of the engineer’s toolbox is a collection of spanners and screwdrivers, but modern engineers require a mental toolbox of thinking skills. Thinking skills are critical in the dual sense of being critical about material and of being critical to success. The fundamental tools in the mental toolbox are Rudyard Kipling’s “six honest serving-men”: How? What? Why? Who? Where? When?
Engineering is usually perceived to be about doing things so engineers tend to focus on how something can be done. Much of the formal education of an engineer focusses on developing the underlying knowledge base needed to answer “How?” questions. Further experience in engineering practice expands the knowledge of the engineer but also provides additional tools. This additional knowledge is necessary because “How?” is essential but it must not overshadow the other questions. Many inexperienced engineers make the mistake of rushing into “How?” without asking “What?” and “Why?”.
All too often, time and money are wasted solving a problem that is not the real problem at all. There is an old saying in engineering that the expensive mistakes are made in the first project meeting. The most difficult part of a problem is defining it accurately and asking “What?” and “Why?” can reveal the real requirements. The successful engineer needs to keep asking about what needs to be done and why it is being done.
The questions “Who?”, “Where?” and “When?” should not be neglected either. Engineers have a responsibility to work for the benefit of society and must ask who is affected by their work. Engineering usually takes place in a physical space and the “Where” is important, particularly if it has significant effects on the local community or environment. Finally, engineering work has time restraints and the “When?” cannot be side-lined as an afterthought.
There is no substitute for thinking and for asking critical questions if engineers are to continue the success that modern society takes for granted. The “six honest men” are always willing to help.
 See the poem in “The Elephant’s Child” from the “Just So Stories” by Rudyard Kipling.
Andrew Lennon is a professional engineer for structures in extreme environments. Read Andrew's full career profile.
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