What are we? Operational engineers

Member Forum by Khaled Mabrouk
Industrial Engineer’s column for IIE members to share their perspectives (March 2014)

My first time on a shop floor I was 10 years old. For some reason I can’t remember, I had to go to my dad’s work after school. My dad, at the time, was a general manager for the armament plants located in Helwan, Egypt, an area south of Cairo. That day, he had a meeting at the casting plant, and one of the engineers working there took me on a tour of the facility.

As a little boy, I was in heaven. The casting operations were extremely fascinating, and I immediately fell in love with learning about processes. Since then, that passion for processes has grown to include understanding processes, trying to break them down into components, identifying failure points in them and improving them. That day at the casting plant started me on the road to becoming an industrial engineer.

After 27 years as an industrial engineer, though, I have been disappointed with the fad of the last 10 years that emphasizes Six Sigma, instead of industrial engineering, for operational improvement initiatives. Industrial engineers are required to have a strong background in statistics that is comparable to a master black belt’s.

In areas of the business where the need is strictly data- (not process-) based, having only Six Sigma skills works. For operational improvement initiatives, industrial engineering is the preferred set of skills.

Looking back, even though Motorola was the original source of Six Sigma, it was Jack Welch at GE who made Six Sigma popular. Welch’s goal with Six Sigma was to increase the use of metrics by executives to drive decision making and for executives to get at the root cause when solving problems. GE achieved tremendous success at the time, and, as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery. The Six Sigma push began. Over time, it seems to have grown to be a certificate generating program.

Over the last 20-plus years, lean also has made major inroads as a methodology for improving operational performance. When you look closely, most lean tools are a repackaging of industrial engineering tools. I like that about lean. It is easier to teach industrial engineering skills when they are based on use: 5S, kaizen, kanban, SMED, etc. This packaging of tools reminds me of the surgeon’s kit in a hospital, where the kits are prepared beforehand to include the tools that best fit the type of surgery and the doctor.

I like both Six Sigma and lean. What I don’t like is that both methodologies have caused confusion for the potential users of operational improvement tools. Both Six Sigma and lean are components of industrial engineering. To drive operational improvement initiatives, I would rather hire an industrial engineer with experience over a master black belt.

So what should we industrial engineers do? We need to move beyond the term industrial engineer, which implies that we work only in manufacturing. The reality is that IEs have improved all types of processes, from manufacturing to transportation to service industry to software companies to farming businesses, etc. A more accurate term for what we do is systems engineer. Unluckily, the IT people have taken over that term.

That leaves us with the term operational engineer. We are engineers who solve problems with operations of all kinds.

Yes, I am an operational engineer.

Khaled Mabrouk is a process improvement leader for Sustainable Productivity Solutions based in Santa Cruz, Calif. He received his B.S. in industrial engineering from Purdue University and has been a member of IIE since 1985. In addition, he teaches for San Jose State and CALMAT universities.