Posted by bob on July 21, 2019

It is worth repeating here, that if you learn to simply write stuff down, you will quickly become notable as a better problem-solver than most of those competing with you. The single biggest weakness of most engineers is a failure to properly document and communicate their efforts.

This is not to say that most engineers are not smart. Indeed, it is their ability to understand and remember complex relationships which allows them to work with difficult technical subjects.

But human memory is frail: eventually we all forget something. You might want to argue that you don’t forget the important things. This is not true. You sometimes forget the most important things, and if you don’t believe me, just ask your family.

One of the issues we all face as we age is that our memory is simply not as good as it was when we were much younger. In addition to the un-important things, we begin to forget some important things. My wife, you know, what’s-her-name, can confirm this. My amnesia has been complicated by Déjà vu. I think I keep forgetting the same things again and again.

However, even if we were really good at remembering all of the important details, problems and mysteries are often solved by recognizing the significance of (seemingly) the least-important details. These are the things that most people would regard as merely debris alongside a road of important clues.

In detective, mystery, or crime stories, the hero earns that status by recognizing the meaning of some tiny or seemingly unimportant bit of evidence. In real life, this comes about more often from exhaustive study of thousands of tiny clues and hints from the crime scene.

Sometimes the critical clue in an investigation is what you don’t find in the remains. Only the most careful technical person will catalog each and every component; allowing later analysis to reveal the missing item. This kind of forensic study is often the key to solving air crash mysteries. [Several famous crashes revealed that some (or most) of an airframe tail were missing from the primary crash site. What do you think that might tell you about the root cause of that crash?]

When you collect in writing the facts of a problem (answering “what do you know?” and “what are the rules?”) you enable yourself to go back and re-arrange and review these facts at a later time. You also enable other people to review those same details. Their fresh eyes might assign slightly different importance to your details. Suddenly, new understanding can emerge from the same facts. But if you hide clues by failing to record them, the best minds in the world cannot solve a badly documented problem.

 These recorded facts are best when they have been converted to computer searchable form, not just jotted down in your engineering notebook. This allows you to do searches and create correlations of your facts that would otherwise exhaust the most careful human investigator. One past employer had amazing product databases, where they could pull out detailed factory test measurements for any product serial number. Performance trends could be charted and discontinuities in trend-lines could be matched to changes in component vendors and changes in factory processes. Sometimes the key clue is that apparently no components or processes changed, yet a big quality disruption was measured. That information could help identify possible culprits outside of the usual suspects.

There is another important aspect of collecting your information into a searchable text form. Although I fully support using annotated photographs and videos to clearly communicate concepts, they are not easily searched. This can exacerbate the situation where an important clue is hiding in plain sight. Maybe the information needed to solve the mystery was there in a photograph—but nobody recognized it on first examination.

Be sure that you publish (share) the information you have carefully collected and documented. Sometimes this might be simply to send your team an email with a link to folders on a specific server. Or you might send an email with some selected highlights with backup links to the underlying data. With more eyeballs looking at the clues, a team increases their probability of success.

In conclusion, although human memory is frail, paper does not forget.

Likewise, computer storage with appropriate backup will not forget. Unless you forget to click <sa