Elon Musk and his Five-Step Engineering Process Based on First Principles
If you have not discovered The Everyday Astronaut (a website and YouTube channel), it should be on your sensemaking radar. Gone are the days of dependence on traditional media outlets to watch seminal space launches or returns at a fixed time in an exclusively nation-state based space race. Everyday Astronaut is an example of the evolution of “space fan culture,” a case study in far how democratized media has come in its ability to educate and inform on even the most complex of scientific and technical topics, and a window into the democratization of space travel and how commercial space efforts will be covered by the media in 2021 and beyond. Elon Musk is clearly a fan, spending over two-hours recently with Everyday Astronaut host Tim Dodd at the SpaceX Starbase Facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
At minute 13:25 (video cued), Musk breaks down his five-step engineering process
An especially interesting takeaways from the tour is Musk sharing the five steps of his engineering process, noting that “what I am trying to do is have everyone implement rigorously the five-step process.”
Elon Musk’s five-step engineering process
1_Make your requirements less dumb.
2_Delete the part or process step.
3_Simplify or optimize (but only after Steps 1 and 2)
4_Accelerate cycle time.
As OODALoop’s Matthew Devost points out: “Much of his focus seems to be on efficiency and speed, which is of course the essence of OODA Loops. It seems he is articulating a way to accelerate the OODA Loop for complex engineering.”
Musk: “You need to review requirements especially when they were delivered by very smart people.”
1_Make your requirements less dumb. As Musk points out: “Everyone’s wrong. No matter who you are, everyone is wrong some of the time.” He also notes that “all designs are wrong, it’s just a matter of how wrong.” In a twist on the notion of human error in decision-making, Musk is pointing out that requirements tend not be reviewed and question enough if they were created by very smart people. Musk notes that you need to review requirements especially when they were delivered by very smart people: “Whatever requirement you have must have a person responsible for it. If people are questioning the requirement, then you need to go back to the person who knows why it was needed in the first place. Make the requirements less dumb. The requirements are definitely dumb; it does not matter who gave them to you.”
“This is actually very important: if you are not occasionally putting things back in, you are not deleting enough.”
2_Delete the part or process step. “The is bias tends to be very strongly towards “let’s add this part or process step in case we need it,” observes Musk, “If you are not adding things back into the design at least 10% of the time, you are clearly not deleting enough. If you are not forced to add back then you are not working hard enough to remove steps.” On the human factor, he adds: “Whatever requirement or constraint you have it must come with a name, not a department, because you can’t ask the departments, you have to ask a person and that person who is putting forward the requirement or constraint must take responsibility for that requirement.”
“It’s possibly the most common error of a smart engineer is to optimize the thing that should not exist.”
3_Simplify or optimize (but only after Steps 1 and 2). Musk reminisced that “everyone has been trained in high school and college that you must answer the question, convergent logic. You can’t tell the professor your question is dumb. You will get a bad grade. You have to answer the question. So everyone – without knowing it – they’ve got like a mental straight jacket on – that is, they’ll work on optimizing the thing that should simply not exist.” Musk gives the example of early SpaceX Falcon rocket design conversations with Tom Mueller. When considering how to make minimally viable rockets, hypergolic MMH/NTO combustion for upper stage rockets (a variant of the TRW lunar module (LMD) descent engine) came up as an example. It became clear to Musk and Mueller that trying to optimize these designs for SpaceX’s purposes were extremely cost prohibitive along with other engineering and manufacturing issues: “Even if Edison and Tesla had a baby and that baby was smarter than both of them combined and said, your job is to optimize an NTO/MMH upper stage, you’re screwed, okay?”
Musk also reinforces that there is a reason that ‘simplify and optimize’ is step 3, as Steps 1 and 2 should insure that requirement, parts and processes which should not exist are eliminated early in the engineering process, never making it to step 3. OODALoop’s Bob Gourley also offers that “Step 3 makes me think of two things I saw often in cloud computing implementations within the intelligence community. The positive trend was to re-engineer processes and design new applications for the cloud. This was rare but it did happen. The negative trend I saw was to “Lift and Shift”, tweaking old applications to run in a cloud environment. While lift and shift has some benefits, it is full of waste, including wasted opportunities.”
Simplicity and Subtraction are interdisciplinary subdisciplines–which explore science, engineering, design, decision analysis and problem solving–ripe for further exploration through titles such as Leidy Klotz’s Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less and John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity.
“You’re moving too slowly, go faster! But don’t go faster until you’ve worked on the other three things first.”
4_Accelerate cycle time. Musk states “if you’re digging your grave, don’t dig it faster. Stop digging your grave. But you can always make things go faster.” Something to consider for your organization is that exponential technologies[i] have inherent qualities which can also be designed into the structure of an exponential organizations[ii] to enhance operational acceleration.
5_Automate. Musk shares that he has “personally made the mistake of going backwards on all five steps multiple times, where literally I automated, accelerated, simplified and then deleted,” on the Telsa Model 3 production program trying to fix choke points, “it was like being in a Goldberg cartoon. Actually, I feel like I am in a Goldberg cartoon quite frequently. Another mistake that has to happen in production is too much in-process testing. When you are first setting up a production line, you don’t know where things are breaking. So you’ll test like working process at various steps because you want to isolate where’s the mistake occurring. So a very common issues with production lines is to not remove the in-process testing after you diagnose where the problems are. If things are getting to end of line testing and are passing, then you do not need to do in-process testing. So really in volume production if things are working well, you pretty much want to test at the end of the line and that is it.”
We were struck by how much Elon Musk’s engineering approach flows from first principles. For more on Elon’s view of first principles see:
[i] “Exponential technologies refers to the exponential acceleration of technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, and synthetic or industrial biology. These and other exponential technologies are creating new competitive risks and opportunities for enterprises that have historically enjoyed dominant positions in their industries.
[ii] An Exponential Organization (ExO) is one whose impact (or output) is disproportionally large – at least 10 x larger – compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies.
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