Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Making yourself easy to be scheduled: Part 2 - The Lego Exercise

Many things influence your ability to predict the amount of time that it takes you to complete a task. Not all of them are within your direct control, but many of them are. The following exercise will demonstrate this through the use of Legos, which most engineers like to play with inherently.

Go to your local toy store (or at least pretend to) and find the section that has Legos. Select a set with between 20 and 50 pieces in it. Before making your purchase, take a good look at the picture on the container, which shows what the completed set should look like. Be sure to get a bag and leave your new toy in the bag for a couple days.

Next, without removing the container from the bag, open it and spread all of the pieces out on a flat surface in front of you. The idea here is that you want to be able to get all the pieces out of the container without looking at the picture on the outside again. Give yourself one minute to look over the pieces. Everything you need to put together the set is at your disposal. After a minute and using only your memory of the finished product as shown on the container as your guide, predict the amount of time you will require to assemble the set. Write down your answer and start putting the set together, making note of your start time. When you think you are done, write down your finish time and compare your finished project to the picture on the box.

What you will likely find (unless you are already a pretty serious Lego hobbyist), is that it took you longer than expected to put your toy together, and that it does not look like the picture on the container at all. You might be thinking that this exercise is unfair because it asks you to complete a task without a clear understanding of what the end product should look like. Guess what? That happens in engineering projects all the time. At least here you have your memory of the picture on the box to go on. Imagine how much more difficult this would be if you had someone who has never put together a Lego set describe to you what the picture should look like. That is roughly the ambiguity that exists when an engineer talks to a marketing person about a new product.

The point is that you often are handed a vague description of what you are trying to construct, but you are asked to provide an accurate completion estimate anyway. Unfair? Absolutely. It is unfair, but it is often reality. How are you supposed to get good at predicting how long it will take you to do something when that something is never well-defined to begin with? It may sound odd, but the fact that projects are often vague is a fact in your favor. To see how, move on to the second phase of this exercise.

Take apart your Lego set and put it away for a few days. Then repeat the exercise exactly as you did before. How much better was your estimate this time? It was probably a lot better. Why? Because you did it once already and you were able to apply what you learned about doing it the first time to this subsequent attempt. This is the second point of the exercise – that, even if your marketing staff’s end goals are vague, you get better at estimating task durations the more times you attempt them.

While merely building the same thing again seems like cheating, it actually is not. Many of the tasks we are asked to perform as engineers – such as documentation, designs, and proof of concept investigations - are very similar to the same tasks we have done already for the last project or the previous iteration of the one on which you are working. The key is to capture those similarities so that what you are estimating is based on the differences, which tend to be smaller. How do you do that?

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 9:41 AM   0 comments links to this post

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