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'Work smart' mantra mines innovation

Posted: 01 Aug 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:managing design engineers? improve productivity of engineers? innovation in electronic design?

As demands on engineers have gotten tougher, teams must learn that the 'work smarter' approach drives productivity and innovation as opposed to 'work harder.'

It's no secret that demands on engineers have gotten tougher. Moore's Law and design complexity continue their inexorable climb. Nanometer feature sizes demand the closer scrutiny of almost every aspect of design physics.

The new process drivers of consumer applications are incredibly sensitive to cost and time-to-market. As a result, the historical focus on productivity and innovation by engineering management has given way to an overriding emphasis on cost containment and outsourcing. Meanwhile, engineers are induced to surrender their role as an agent of improvement and innovation.

Symptomatic of these pressures on the electronics design community is an upsurge of "embattled engineers." EE Times' statistical research shows that the working conditions of engineers are considerably worse than those of a corresponding college-educated U.S. male.

As design teams hunker down to grind out new chips, they spend less time on improving their design capabilities. Consequently, productivity and innovation plummet over the long run. An MIT study on process improvement, "Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened," supports the observation that the short-term gain from requiring employees to "work harder" cannot match the long-term gain of a "working smarter" process improvement.

Projects that depend on a "work harder" vs. a "work smarter" approach tend to see more schedule surprises. These studies suggest that those IC companies that drive engineers to work harder with outdated EDA tools are likely to experience a reduction in productivity and innovation capability.

A by-product of tighter schedules and budgets is the decrease in collaborative dialogue with engineering management. Engineering teams have the ingenuity to make magic happen if empowered and equipped to do so. Engineers who used to lead breakthroughs in productivity by taking risks and succeeding, however, now find it taboo to discuss solutions "outside the box" with management, especially when new spending or tooling is involved.

Somewhere along the way, people have forgotten that innovation and productivity are cornerstones of electronics design that dramatically impact corporate competitiveness. Engineers and engineering management can give frank, substantive conversations about factors affecting engineering productivity.

This means engineers should persistently voice scheduling and risk realities while offering suggestions for improving capabilities. Senior management needs to hear engineers' good judgment, as opposed to a lot of data-on design, schedule and EDA tool alternatives.

On the other hand, managers should recognize and reward engineers who take the initiative to advance design methodologies and to learn new skills, rather than those who simply work overtime to bail out delayed projects. And they should schedule time between projects to evaluate and select new design tools, and for engineers to be trained and to hone their new skills.

Long-term productivity gains happen when organizations make a conscious effort to retool their engineers and reward process improvements. The result is sustainable innovation in design.

- Kathryn Kranen
President and CEO, Jasper Design Automation Inc.

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