September/October 2013
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Accurate thinking

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

As automation systems become more complicated, the notion of accurate thinking is more challenging for several reasons, including being overwhelmed with new technology and receiving large amounts of information from a wide range of sources. Accurate thinking has always been fundamental for success and is deceptively simple. Most of us have a reflex reaction to disbelieve what we do not immediately understand, but resisting this reaction can lead to new opportunities and ideas. Also, if we are not careful, accurate thinking can be difficult when our egos and emotions cloud thoughts. Here are some classic examples:

  • For thousands of years, people made ships only with wood, believing that it was the only substance that would float. Then someone proposed using iron to build ships. Many insisted they would not float; they would damage more easily than wooden ships when grounding; they would be difficult to preserve from rust; and they would deflect the compass.
  • Commodore Vanderbilt, the legendary American industrialist who built his wealth in shipping and railroads, dismissed Westinghouse and his new airbrakes for trains with the remark that he had no time to waste on fools.
  • Those who loaned Robert Fulton money for his steamboat project stipulated that their names be withheld, for fear of ridicule if it were known that they supported something so "foolhardy."
  • Joshua Coppersmith was arrested in Boston for trying to sell stock in the telephone. "All well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over a wire."
  • In 1888, architect Leroy S. Buffington took out patents for the steel-frame skyscraper, and the Architectural News predicted that the expansion and contraction of iron would crack all the plaster, eventually leaving only the shell.

In retrospect, it is easy to make the observation that these examples show foolish thinking, but this observation comes after these facts were already established. Accurate thinking involves the following two fundamentals.

First, separate facts from the general information overload we are overwhelmed with these days. Particularly with the Internet, much of the information available is not based on facts but on conjecture and opinions, or worse, is created to manipulate your decision process. Many sales people are trained to "steer" or "channel" a prospective buyer's decision-making process to sell a proposed product.

Second, separate facts into classes of important/unimportant and relevant/irrelevant. Getting to the facts takes research and a deeper understanding of your resources; thus, once you have identified important and relevant information for the task at hand, you should then research it thoroughly and determine whether it is accurate. Keep in mind that something may be important in some situations but unimportant for your particular decision. Combining and using important and relevant facts specific to a situation yields quality results. Building upon unproven information when implementing automation can create major problems that can be costly to overcome. Many times the issues do not surface until later in the project, making solving the problems much more challenging, increasing costs and delaying schedules.

As engineers and technical people, we tend to be self-sufficient and want to directly verify facts ourselves experientially. This can cost a great deal of time and resources. You should not be timid about asking coworkers and suppliers for solid proof to verify critical facts to avoid future problems.

Having the courage to deal with facts, particularly when they differ from your original or initial beliefs, will make you more successful.

Making sure you have accurate information will save time, money, and aggravation in the long run and lead to superior project outcomes.