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The Engineer's Book Club

The Engineer's Book Club is a forum to discuss books that cover engineering topics or are of interest to engineers and technical professionals. Featured books will cover topics including engineering, science, history & technology, building projects, experimentation and learning, physics & mathematics, space travel, as well as related topics like business, communications and media, and current events. Both fiction and non-fiction works are acceptable.

Book Review: The Checklist Manifesto

Posted December 23, 2011 9:30 AM by wilmot

The Checklist Manifesto

by Atul Gawande

The author is a prominent surgeon in Boston, who is also a staff writer for the New Yorker. The simple checklist is by now familiar to everyone from watching NASA countdowns, but before 1935 the concept was unknown. Only after a fatal crash of an experimental bomber due to simple pilot error did test pilots start to make up checklists to catch the stupid stuff. Engineers since then have made routine use of checklists, but not surgeons, until Dr. Gawande conducted a trial in 2008 with 8 hospitals around the world. He found that simple surgery checklists reduced mishaps by 36% and deaths by 47%. This is a great vindication of the engineering approach and a rebuttal of the prima donna professional who thinks he's on top of everything.

Image Credit: http://gawande.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/TheChecklist-bookshot-432x550.jpg

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Book Review - The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright

Posted December 01, 2010 8:30 AM by Ron

Tom Crouch's book about the Wright Brothers is one that I'd seen reviewed, probably ever since it came out in 1989. The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright is also a book I knew I ought to read "one of these days". Well, this year at Oshkosh, I spotted a copy at an aviation bookseller's place and grabbed it. I'm glad that I did!

I've read at least half a dozen books on the Wright Brothers, plus many shorter articles, and yet this book covered territory new to me - and more clearly than anything I've seen before. The bibliography cites over 150 documents, and some of the footnotes refer to private conversations or correspondence with descendants of the people involved. This must have been a huge undertaking: the finished product runs 37 chapters and 606 pages. One review says that it took ten years of work to write. Every chapter has anywhere from a dozen to more than 40 footnotes (all gathered at the back, permitting the reader to read straight through if that is their preference).

According to the book's back cover, author "Tom Crouch is chairman of the department of aeronautics at the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution." Dr. Crouch's current title there is Senior Curator. That, together with several degrees in history, pretty well supports his qualifications to write such a book, and in part explains how he received access to so many sources that were previously untouched.

A short biography lists some of the awards that Dr. Crouch's books have won. The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright got the 1989 Christopher Award, a literary prize recognizing "significant artistic achievement in support of the highest values of the human spirit", and gives more of his very impressive background.

Summary: I recommend this book without reservation!

Editor's Note: CR4 would like to thank Ron Darner, newsletter editor for Chapter 320 of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), for contributing this book review.

7 comments; last comment on 08/14/2011
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Book Review: World Made By Hand

Posted May 20, 2010 11:06 AM by Steve Melito

"Children like my Daniel and Genna had sat in those very box buildings under buzzing fluorescent lights listening to their science teachers prattle about the wonders of space travel and gene splicing and how we were all going to live to be a hundred and twenty five years old in 'smart' computer-controlled houses where all we had to do was speak to bump up the heat or turn on the giant home theater screens in a life of perpetual leisure and comfort. It made me sick to think about it. Not because there's something necessarily wrong with leisure or comfort, but because that's where our aspirations ended. And in the face of what had happened to us, it seemed obscenely stupid". pp. 33-34

In World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler uses shades of gray to paint a portrait of small-town America after Armageddon. Set in Union Grove, New York, an upstate hamlet in rural Washington County, World Made by Hand is far brighter than the future imagined in either Cormac McCarthy's The Road or James Cameron's The Terminator. Some residents, such as the leaders of Union Grove's four subcultures, enjoy varying degrees of economic success, improved social status, or spiritual growth. For others, such as those Union Grove residents who cling to a twentieth-century past of plenty, Kunstler's world is a dark and desperate place.

Much as a good horror movie shrouds a killer or monster during the film's earliest scenes, James Howard Kunstler keeps most of the back-story to World Made by Hand off-stage. The United States exists, albeit only nominally, after losing Washington D.C. and Los Angeles to nuclear attacks. Rioting in other cities, a war in the Middle East, and an oil embargo that dwarves those of the 1970s cripples what remains of the nation's economy. TV stations go off the air, the electrical grid works sporadically, and roads and bridges fall into disrepair. There are no newspapers and there is no mail. For the residents of a small-town in upstate New York, isolation from the outside world is both a blessing and a break with the past.

Ironically, survival in Kunstler's world depends upon the ability to embrace a more distant past as both the new present and the only foreseeable future. Robert Earle, a former software company executive, builds barns when he's not serving Union Grove as its new mayor. Stephen Bullock, the son of a successful cider supplier to a now-defunct supermarket chain, builds an estate – complete with agricultural and technological novelties – reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Wayne Karp, a drug dealer who now scavenges the local landfill for building materials, forms his own fiefdom among residents of a ragged trailer park. Brother Job, the mysterious leader of a religious sect called the New Faith Brotherhood, buys the old Union Grove high school to build a New Jerusalem.

It is this high school, the subject of Robert Earle's soliloquy at the beginning of this book review, which brings the end of our modern age into such sharp relief. It's not just that there's no space travel, gene splicing, fluorescent lighting, or even dreams of "perpetual leisure and comfort" in World Made by Hand. It's not just the high school's classrooms are now workshops and its athletic fields arable lands. As Brother Jobe explains to Robert Earle as the end of the book, "Back in the machine times, there was so much noise front and back, so to speak, it kept us from knowing what lies below the surface of things. Now it stands out more".

3 comments; last comment on 05/21/2010
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Book Review: A New Leadership Ethos (Part 3)

Posted February 15, 2010 12:01 AM by Steve Melito

"Organizations can rarely be built to last but generally only grown to achieve," writes Dr. Marc van der Erve in A New Leadership Ethos: The Ability to Predict. A student of science and sociology, Dr. van der Erve roots his writings in the deep, rich soils of chaos theory, thermodynamics, and Darwinian evolution. The result, a flowering called "the theory of Emzine", is designed to provide leaders with the ability to repeat organizational successes and foresee the future. This ability to predict – and the wisdom to know when to change course or even step aside – is part of the "moral competence" of leaders.

Beyond Case Studies

Part 1 and Part 2 of this book review examined Marc van der Erve's analysis of four types of business leaders: transformers, builders, growers, and confronters. An analysis of Apple Computer, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and General Electric (GE) afforded three valuable case studies. The third and final part of this book review seeks the heart of A New Leadership Ethos and examines the boldest of van der Erve's claims – the very point captured in the book's title – that the distinguishing characteristic of our time is the ability to predict.

The Theory of Emzine

Energy, environment, and evolution underlie the Theory of Emzine, a portmanteau of the words "existential manifold" and "zine". Such a naming convention may seem ponderous, but Emzine's tenets are straightforward. "All observable facts", writes Marc van der Erve, "are forms of organization". In other words, everything from atoms to Apple Computer is an organization. Although some organizations (such as markets) require leaders, others (such as layers of liquid) remain leaderless. Yet both types are "behavioral marvels that emerge spontaneously to minimize a state of inequality through the natural selection of the most efficient behavior pattern species – no matter the actors involved".

Atoms and Apple Computer

Like atoms and Apple Computer, heat flow and human organization follow a predictable pattern of inequality, the minimization of inequality, the natural selection of behavioral patterns, and the reproduction of the most efficient patterns. With markets, inequality is a matter of supply and demand. With layers of liquids, the variable is temperature. In each case, the organization's spontaneous attempts to minimize inequality lead to the natural selection of behavior patterns. In Darwinian fashion, the most efficient molecular or human behavior patterns reproduce best, leading the organization to evolve accordingly.

The Ability to Predict

"The ability to predict," continues van der Erve, rests on the observation that behavior patterns emerge in distinct stages" of environment, trigger, behavior-pattern species, and environment-sustained organization. In the case of a business, the environment is "supply-demand inequality", the trigger is "entrepreneurial leadership", the behavior-pattern species is "congruently-working people in multiple roles" and the environment-sustained organization is the business itself. For liquid layers and heat flow, the stages are an environment of temperature inequality, a trigger of surface perturbations, a behavior-pattern species of congruently-moving liquid molecules, and an environment-sustained organization of the heat flow itself.

For readers without a background (or interest) in science, A New Leadership Ethos: The Ability to Predict may seem less accessible than a business book such as Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Leaders by Jim Collins. For the more scientific-minded reader, however, van der Erve's voice is a welcome sound in a business-book market that often seems like an echo chamber.

4 comments; last comment on 03/28/2010
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Book Review: A New Leadership Ethos (Part 2)

Posted February 08, 2010 5:01 PM by Steve Melito

"All forms of organization are essentially ecosystems," writes Dr. Marc van der Erve in A New Leadership Ethos: The Ability to Predict. Businesses respond to their environments and obey both "basic laws of energy" and "Darwinian notions". Organizations also develop in "four distinct stages", each of which requires a different type of leader. According to van der Erve, these considerations determine whether a business needs a transformer, builder, grower or confronter-type leader.

Part 1 of this book review examined the history of Apple Computer. Apple's example is easy to follow, but the stages of leadership aren't always discrete – nor are all its endings happy.

Digital Equipment Corporation

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) endured a flawed beginning, at least according to Marc van der Erve's model. Ken Olsen, the company's founder, was a grower instead of a builder. Although Olsen grew the company's annual revenues to $13 billion (USD), he put all of DEC's proverbial eggs into one basket: mini-computers. Blind to the possibility of personal computers (PCs), he asserted that "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home".

Gordon Bell, a builder-type leader, was recruited by DEC from MIT. A talented inventor, Bell battled Olsen in a series of "dog fights" that the company's founder ultimately won. DEC, however, lost its chance to build and then grow. Resting on a flawed foundation, its last leader plowed ahead to confrontation. Bob Palmer, a confronter-type president, oversaw DEC's sale to rival Compaq. There would be no transformer-type leader for the now-defunct Digital Equipment Corporation.

General Electric

Unlike DEC's Ken Olsen, GE's Jack Welch was both a builder and a grower. He was a confronter and a transformer, too, as the environment required. After becoming General Electric's CEO in 1981, Welch slashed the company's workforce by 100,000 employees. The confronter wasn't content with cost-cutting, however, and soon became "the driving force behind the improvement of people and processes." Now a transformer, Jack Welch initiated the largest total-quality program in corporate America. In a "ruthless process of natural selection", he also ordered his subordinates to axe underperformers. With a leaner, meaner team in place, Welch invested heavily in the organization's future leaders.

Although most CEOs are content to remain in their comfort zone, Jack Welch was more than a confronter – or even a transformer. When the business environment required a builder, he bought "a record number of companies" with both a "proven track record" and the potential for growth. During the last stage of his GE career, Welch served as a grower-type leader who reaped the reward of what he had sown. In 1981, when Welch became CEO, GE's revenues were $12 billion (USD). In 2001, when he retired, they were $280 billion.

Jack Welch's successor, Jeffrey Immelt, was forced to become a confronter-type leader as economic conditions worsened and GE's growth declined. As Marc van der Erve notes, the "Immelt Revolution" broke with GE's promote-from-within policies. The company's new outward focus included the sale of GE Plastics to SABIC. Whether Jeffery Immelt can rise to the environment's eventual demand for a transformer-type leader remains to be seen.

9 comments; last comment on 12/23/2010
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Book Review: A New Leadership Ethos (Part 1)

Posted February 08, 2010 4:55 PM by Steve Melito

Leadership is temporal. During each stage of an organization's life, a different type of leader is needed. No business is "built to last" either, regardless of the popularity of a book by Jim Collins by that same name.

These are just some of the ideas of Dr. Marc van der Erve, a European-educated writer and lecturer who now resides in South Africa. The holder of a BSC in Applied Physics and a Ph.D. in Sociology, van der Erve is the author of A New Leadership Ethos: The Ability to Predict.

Four Types of Leaders

According to Dr. van der Erve, there are four types of leaders: transformers, builders, growers, and confronters. Each is necessary during a specific stage in an organization's life. Transformers "re-invent" an organization by "finding a new platform for growth". Builders develop products and boost revenues to affect a larger environment. Growers repeat an organization's earlier successes with greater efficiency while fostering stable growth. Confronters oppose "established thinking" and entrenched business practices when a "radically changing environment" requires radical adjustments. Such business leaders break traditions, "stop a company from looking inward", and set the stage for a new transformer-type figure.

Marc van der Erve's leadership paradigm, which also characterizes the world's religious traditions and political powers, describes the histories of three well-known technology companies: Apple Computer, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and General Electric (GE). That both Apple and GE have survived and indeed thrived is a testament to the importance of having the right leader for a specific environment. The tale of DEC is a cautionary one.

Apple Computer

During his first stint at Apple, Steve Jobs was the consummate builder. His "platform for growth" rested firmly upon foundational products such as the Apple I and Macintosh computers. Although Apple achieved respectable revenues, Jobs was ousted when the business began to struggle. His successor, John Sculley, was a grower-type leader who optimized Apple's "operational and marketing processes" to repeat the company's earlier financial success. When revenues flattened, however, Sculley "failed to set off another cycle of growth" by botching the development of handheld devices. Sculley's successor, Michael Spindler, was a confronter who cut costs.

Cost-cutting could only take Apple so far, however, and Spindler was soon replaced by a transformer-type leader. Gil Amelio did cut costs even further, but "he also invested in the development of new ideas". Fittingly, he enlisted the help of Steve Jobs, "a builder who excels in identifying and nourishing niches". In taking the reigns from Amelio, Jobs introduced the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Apple Computer also began selling music through the Internet as iTunes.

Apple's example is easy to follow, but the stages of leadership aren't always discrete – nor are all its endings happy. Some organizations have enjoyed sweeter outcomes, while others have rotted from within. DEC and GE show how.

Editor's Note: Click here for Part 2 of this book review.

2 comments; last comment on 02/13/2010
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