Ten Parallels Between Annual Physicals and Engineering Consulting

We know getting a physical is important, but fear causes people to avoid annual examinations. This also is true of third-party assessments.

7 Min Read
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We have noticed this trend: People approach consultants’ assessments like doctors’ physicals. Here's a list of the similarities and how the right path can lead to better health in both cases.

1. Fear of the Unknown (It Might Hurt)

Everybody knows getting an annual physical is important but fear of the examination causes people to avoid them.

Only 8% of U.S. adults aged 35 or older receive all recommended clinical preventive services and nearly 5% received none. Only 50% in the U.S.  receive the recommended semi-annual dental care, and 20% haven’t visited a dentist in a few years. Even worse, the four leading causes of death are preventable diseases. Why? Physicals might hurt.

This also is true of third-party assessments. Customers inherently know improving Agile Development, Software Process Improvement and Capability Determination (SPICE) or user experience processes have value. UX leaders outperform laggards’ stock by 30% to 228%). Nevertheless, many avoid helpful assessments.

Psychologists David Watson and Donald Friend defined a Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE) scale in 1969, knowing people can be “…concerned with seeking social approval or avoiding disapproval by others, and may tend to avoid situations where they have to undergo evaluations.” Even though most organizations accept that healthy processes support quality and customer satisfaction, they avoid assessments and neglect quality.

2. Motivation Ends Up Coming from Outsiders

Despite the inherent knowledge it is for our own good, people frequently go to the doctor only when forced by a spouse or employer. One study measured a 33% increase in physical exams based upon social influence, and another found 90% of patients only did an annual well visit because of their physician’s recommendation.

The same is true of ISO/IEC 15504 assessments (otherwise known as SPICE, Automotive SPICE), Functional Safety and Cybersecurity Assessments. Most are scheduled because an OEM customer requires them.

3. Accurate Assessments

Physicals must include medical and situational history. When the patient doesn’t relay this accurately or thoroughly, it hampers diagnoses. As said best by Redelmeier et al, “Ordinary human reasoning may lead patients to provide an unreliable history of past experiences because of errors in comprehension, recall, evaluation and expression.”

There are business parallels in all types of assessments: Assessors, like physicians, must first understand circumstances and history. Due to time constraints, the preparation (akin to “Discovery” in the legal realm), should identify previous assessment results, reason for the assessment, number of process instances, etc. Otherwise, the assessment’s sponsor will be dissatisfied since either there will be missed interviews, interviewing gaps or scope limitations.

Announcing “We’ve never delivered on a commitment” is a difficult, damning statement, especially in the presence of the project manager, but it helps move along the diagnoses and therapy.

Frequently, the skilled practitioner must extract the information lurking in the shadows. Even then, people sometimes do not provide accurate information, equal to saying “I rarely smoke,” despite being a chain smoker.

4. Two-Way Communication of the Prognosis

Strong two-way communication between doctor and patient is highly correlated to agreement by the patient about the treatment and need for follow-up. Doctors must focus on patient explanations and patients must concentrate on active listening. To compound matters, most people suffer a 68% hearing loss when undressed and, although that’s likely more true of physical clothes, it applies to emotional wrappings as well.

There are parallels to engineering assessments. For instance, we have gathered experience that the comfort of an assessment supports better communication. A clear division between assessment team and participants creates a harsh separation and, therein, the evaluation becomes more confrontational, like a tribunal. In our experience, creating a cohesive arrangement, putting the participants at ease and emphasizing understanding of the pressure helps keep an open atmosphere, which leads to better results.

5. Important vs. Urgent

In the infamous book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen Covey talks about “urgent and important,” with urgent always eclipsing the less urgent unless time is prioritized. Long-term recovery – be it physical exercise or organizational processes – is not urgent but is important. In both cases, success requires the patient to reserve blocks of time for important therapy.

In improvement programs or even in daily project activities, this often is neglected. Rather than taking a step back under pressure and analyzing the situation, projects often move forward into unproductive actions.

6. Low-Hanging Fruit

We all want to first address easy items. “Take this pill twice a day.” Deep cuts, such as giving up smoking or losing 50 lbs. (23 kg), are greater efforts and so, human nature deprioritizes these actions. We all want quick accomplishments. However, all four leading causes of death are tied to obesity or smoking and possibly scary surgeries. But pills are the low-hanging fruit.

This is very true in engineering as well. Probably the most difficult to fix and yet the greatest return on investment is project management; sometimes upwards of 1872%.

Despite many companies having On-Time Delivery (OTD) as a KPI, they miss deadlines – which decreases revenue, decreases quality, decreases customer satisfaction and increases costs of goods sold (COGS) – because they are unable to track and react to “percent completion.”

Yes, it would make sense to fix it, but having the organization on the same page, understanding that tasks are aligned with available, technical resources, etc., is like losing fifty pounds.

7. Investment

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Therapy can be costly, and people shy away without realizing that NOT addressing the problem is the decision to spend more money (and not a good investment). In the U.S., the total number of patients discharged against medical advice increased 41% between 1997 and 2011, mostly due to cost. Again, they inherently know the cost of avoidance is higher, but chose to avoid the near-term investment.

Similarly, consulting can be seen as a near-term cost that may not have been originally budgeted and has been listed among the top reasons consultants are not hired. That investment seems painful to some because it’s a non-standard action. The oxymoronic truth, though, is a greater investment is taking its place: inefficient personnel.

8. Soft Skills

What Margaret Carey, a physician and executive coach, said about doctors applies to engineering consultants as well: “In today’s environment of chronic diseases, social determinants of health and team care, equally important are the ‘soft’ or essential, skills: deep listening, asking questions and giving answers, motivating others, delegating and creating a high-performing team. The better the (helping professional) addresses the patient empathetically, the better the buy-in and acceptance of therapy/improvement. 

This is also true for assessors: without proper soft skills, they struggle. They must listen for nuances in answers, identify and follow-up on conflicting information, identify when interviewees hide information and allow those being assessed feel at ease. 

9. Re-Investment

“I got a check-up in 1998.” After an earlier clean bill of health, people often feel there is no need to check again. However, health screenings and business checkups must be done at regular intervals. Why? Multiple companies have achieved maturity and then rested on their laurels.

10. Quiet Amazement

After a clean Bill of Health, there’s always astonishment: “I didn’t realize how much this was bothering me.” As said best by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “Besides causing many emotions that may surprise you, the treatment may actually change the way your brain works.” Improvement feels so great we kick ourselves for postponing it.

Steve Tengler

Steve Tengler

Conclusion: Force yourself to be honest about the benefits of going to a trusted professional and checking on where improvements could be gained. Yes, facing evaluation always seems disquieting, but the alternative is much more painful in the long run.

Steve Tengler has worked within the automotive industry on the connected car for more than a quarter of a century for some of the top brands in world: Ford, Nissan and OnStar. He now is a Principal at Kugler Maag Cie, a global product development consultancy and has 45-plus publications and 50-plus patents to his name. [email protected]

Bhaskar Vanamali is a Principal at Kugler Maag Cie and Principal Assessor for Automotive SPICE as well as an Instructor. He is a regular speaker at industry events and co-authored a book on Automotive SPICE. [email protected].

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