Try This Decision-Making Process for Engineering Projects

Will stakeholders ever make up their minds?

Perry Parendo

May 15, 2024

4 Min Read
gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

At a Glance

  • Discover a process we all logically follow.
  • Create more options to create more value.

We all make countless decisions each day. A few problems exist when making design decisions:

  1. We never have enough data.

  2. The decision should have been made before we even knew a decision was needed.

  3. We aren’t even sure it is our job to make the decision.

Worst case, the decision is relegated to a committee. Not everyone will be happy now. It will take even longer. The decision got way more complicated.

As I work with companies, I see two basic extremes of decision making. Decisions are made on high, without much discussion. The other is collaborative, with very slow movement. Not all decisions should be made using just one approach, but organizations can fall into a single extreme if not careful.

One common concern is about making the “right” decision. Maybe it is regarding a material choice or about including a new technology. When do we get to learn if the right decision was made? After we get some field experience, which is certainly too late. But even then, would our alternative approach have been better? We will never know for sure. I have always said, we need to make the best decision with the information available at the time and keep moving.

What Should We Do to Make a Decision?

In my opinion, a “bad” decision too early can be better than the right decision too late. With a good team, they can work with a bad decision and make it acceptable. But if the decision is too late, the schedule becomes a mess and motivation has dropped. Don’t get concerned about being right.

Related:Stop Wasting Your Technical Talent, Part 1

I have taught a basic decision-making process to companies. When they create their own process, it is often very similar.

  1. State the problem.

  2. Identify alternatives.

  3. Evaluate alternatives—with existing knowledge, or with new data that can be collected or generated.

  4. Make a decision.

  5. Implement the decision.

When stating the problem, it is important everyone agrees what the problem is. At times it seems obvious, but this step still requires time. Going through the process, it is often a surprise to find other viewpoints from the team.

Many decisions are made without discussion of viable and distinct alternatives. Asking whether we implement a new technology or not isn’t much of a choice. The option is often the current available technology. What other technologies are possible? Creating a quick list can help others offer options. This could include vendor ideas. With more true options, a better decision is possible.

Evaluating alternatives means understanding the tangible and intangible expectations. Not all data will ever be available, and certainly not in a timely fashion. Prioritization is also required. But we need to understand when a decision is needed. Some talk about not making a decision before it’s time. This means, don’t rush a decision today if it really isn’t needed for another month. Knowing decision deadlines early in a project helps provide the time to collect the data to make the best decision possible.

Related:Stop Wasting Your Technical Talent, Part 2

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Ultimately, we need to decide. It is funny how many times decisions are never made. We create options. We continue to evaluate. But we never decide anything. It is important to know who will make the decision, and when it needs to be made. As a project manager, at times I would tell my team, “You have until Friday to make a decision. If you can’t, then I will make it.” There can be many reasons why a team doesn’t want to make a decision. But as the project manager, I cannot let an important decision linger. Decide and move on.

And finally, we need to implement the decision! This includes communicating the decision. Maybe we roll out the solution in phases. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We evaluate the results and continue implementation as appropriate. But making a decision and then doing nothing about it is really frustrating for a team.

Related:Why Did My Test Fail?

While decision making has its challenges, we need to actively make them for the best team and project success. The process discussed provides some talking points to ensure the team is on the same page. What steps would you emphasize for making decisions? It could be something listed, or it could be a new step. Interested to hear your thoughts!

About the Author(s)

Perry Parendo

Parendo began developing and seeing results from his Design Of Experiments (DOE) techniques at the General Motors Research Labs in 1986. His unique insight into DOE has saved time and money while solving complex problems during product and process development. This paved the way for him to lead multi-million dollar New Product Development (NPD) projects with international teams.

Parendo founded Perry’s Solutions LLC in 2006 to help organizations with critical product development activities. He has consulted in a wide range of industries such as consumer products, biomedical products, and heavy equipment. He is currently a regular columnist for Design News. He received his Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of Minnesota.

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