This has already been an interesting year. We’ve seen the epidemic swing from wildly out of control to within grasp of victory, large silver rocket ships have flown to low altitudes, and air taxis are starting to be a thing. One can only hope the hilarity continues so our spirits will stay high enough to not respread this virus.
The most recent important thing to happen to my life which I probably didn’t relate is that there is a new member of the family. A puppy. It’s some beagle mix. That in itself isn’t so interesting, but I thought I’d share because it has taken over my life. Between the walks, working around its schedule, and dealing with the training it’s a full time job on top of my other full time job.
I also started recording my randomness on YouTube (you can check out the SES channel here). Right now it’s just some ramblings on a video blog and a couple of videos showing my hilarious efforts to weld. Oh and that. I finally broke down and bought a welder. A really nice one, so I have no excuse for why my welds look like boogers and not a stack of dimes. It’s not the machine.
So as the introduction alludes, a lot of things are going on right now, whether their in this household or externally. It feels like the world is reawakening from a slumber. With all of these things competing for my attention, I often find it hard to focus. This brings me to the subject today – attention to detail.
I have a strange relationship to this subject. In school I always got “A”s, but rarely 100’s. In GPA world a 96 and a 100 show up the same, so why put in the extra effort? This may sound lazy (and it is) but I would counter that even at that young age I was practicing engineering – not focusing on accomplishing something that isn’t needed given a limited amount of resources (or attention span).
When I was in college I worked in the machine shop and loved working on the mill. I regularly hit .001” tolerances on machines that were put in place right after WWII. I really thought that meant that I cared about the details and was very detailed oriented. It took Navy Officer Candidate School to disprove my theory. I remember arguing with a drill instructor that his postulated position about my inability to accurately fold a handkerchief could not possible hold water because I was a MACHINIST! Needless to say these were not the words used in the exchange and it did not turn out well for me.
This carried on into my post-Navy career where I got the following comment on my annual review (and I’m paraphrasing, slightly). “You have a variable attention to details. In some things you perform tasks flawlessly, but in tasks which you think are less important you do not apply yourself as fully.” Point taken.
That really got me to thinking about this comment. My initial reaction was, “I think you’re right and I’ll try to do better.” But then I thought about it and went back (I actually did) and told my supervisor that I’m actually proud of that comment and will strive to get it on my next review.
I had come to a realization. Attention to detail is just one more resource that has limitations. We can’t use it all up on the trivial stuff or there won’t be any left for when it matters. Some have more than others, and other budget it less wisely, but like all other things, your attention span is finite.
Whether we know it or not, all engineers make decisions based on how much attention they are going to pay to a task. Usually, the first thing to go is the administrative stuff that we all despise followed closely by social interactions of any types. The real trick is being able to step back and make rational decisions on what is actually important so we can prioritize our attention budget.
When it comes to technical engineering, this is codified in quality programs and operational manual. The things that matter have processes and procedures, and the more they matter, the more we verify them. So this variable attention to detail is baked into our technical process. When properly implemented it ensures that the right focus is put in the right place. This starts to sound a lot like my graded approach to quality, because it is exactly the same. In a nutshell, graded approaches to quality is merely the codification of the concept of variable attention to detail as pertains to technical work.
Where we often miss this boat is in things outside of our technical scope. Paperwork and personal lives fall into this category. If we considered our technical work just one of our functions as a human engineer, we could step back and make some realizations. If that contract doesn’t get through, no amount of technical planning matters, or if you don’t have any friends then you won’t be able to borrow a lawn mower when yours breaks.
This brings me back to my Navy example. I was arguing that as a machinist, there was no way I didn’t have the attention to detail to properly measure a handkerchief. What I had failed to realize at the time is that I was actively exercising Variable Attention to Detail (VAD). My prioritization of my attention (in order) was: getting sleep, getting food, not getting hurt, and not getting yelled at. Handkerchiefs did not rank. Was I capable or properly measuring a handkerchief? You bet your calipers. Did my brain give a flying flip? Nope. That’s where I failed to step back and look at the bigger picture and realize that all that I really had to prioritize is what the drill instructor prioritized. It cost me an extra week at Officer’s Candidate School.
Now that we understand the concept of a VAD, we have to broach the subject of how you decide where your attention should be focused. This is extremely personal and generally the cause of workplace conflict. Since I work alone, I’m constantly conflicted.
As stated before, we need to be able to step out of our situation and look from the outside. If someone was watching you like you were in the Truman Show, what would be their comment about what you should be paying attention to? I’d say the fact that you’ve never left the same 10 blocks in your life might be a good start…
The other skill we need is the ability to properly assess how much attention we have to give. That is certainly a “know thy self” situation where we must be brutally honest. In today’s age of instant gratification our ability to focus on something has decreased. I know that I can barely finish typing this sentence before I
And the last piece of the puzzle is being able to understand how interesting the tasks ahead of us will be. If you “budget” the same amount of attention to reading quality manuals as you do to designing a cool device, you can bet that your attention for the latter will be far more efficient than for the former.
When you put all of these pieces together you can properly allocate your attention and execute your VAD plan. I even go so far as to write it down each week – mostly because I’m absent minded and writing it down provides more motivation. Everyone will have their own process. And everyone will put the pieces together and get different results.
In the future you may have opportunity to work with someone that really grasps the concept of VAD. This is quite a blessing, but it probably won’t feel that way. These tend to be stubborn people that already know what they’re doing next regardless of the words coming out of your mouth. So instead of telling them where their attention should be focused, you need to give them the information so they can make that realization themselves.
This is more difficult than just telling them what to do, but on the flip side, this is a person that will not need a lot of guidance to keep going. As long as you’ve given them the right data and you hired someone with your priorities, little else will be needed.
There is no such thing as a “perfectionist”. These are just people that have a very narrow view of what matters to the point where they can fully control those specific aspects of their lives. I’m clearly a practitioner of the other extreme view – a “sloppierist”. Someone that realizes that all tasks have some inherent value, but almost none of them require complete attention all the time. There is likely some middle ground that is better, but I can’t be bothered to budget my limited amount of attention to think it through.
This was a short newsletter, mostly because I have more important things to do (see the subject). In that vein I’ll take a stab at a quick (and hopefully poignant) quip.
The details you pour into the minutia will take a microscope to see.