Engineering is at heart a creative activity. How else could you describe a vocation that requires clear thinking and the ability to conceive of and work through several different ways to solve a problem?
At Southco (Concordville, PA) management has devised an enviable plan for boosting engineering creativity and project efficiency: Get the engineers out of the building.
Specifically, Southco engineers--and their colleagues on individual projects from manufacturing, quality control, purchasing, and marketing--move into facilities on the company's brand new campus so they can work together to conceive product breakthroughs free of the normal daily routines and requirements that are part of the industrial world. The facilities become mini war rooms for devising new product-design strategy and tactics.
"We want to give the product-development teams the freedom they need to be creative," says Southco's Bob DePippo. Does it work? Here is what one engineer says:
"By being away from the routine and with the other members of the product team, we can solve problems now, and make decisions on design issues immediately without waiting for formal meetings," says engineer Harry Dickerson. "We can turn around and solve problems easily."
Among the re-cent products to emanate from the process: a new version of a standard product. The product had a lead time previously of four to six weeks. Working with other members of the team away from the main building, engineers cut that lead time to days.
Eventually, the product teams will move from the temporary facilities to a new Technology Center Southco is planning adjacent to its main building. The main building itself is testimony to the company's progressive thinking, with a special training center and displays of the various applications for some of Southco's 16,000 standard products.
Companies looking for ways to boost the productivity and creativity of their engineers--and all should be--can learn from Southco's example. It's another application of the venerable Skunkworks approach that has served engineering so well.