Industrial Engineer Engineering and Management Solutions at Work

July 2012    |    Volume: 44    |    Number: 7

The member magazine of the Institute of Industrial and Engineers

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Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

Humans and engineering. Who knew?

When “outsiders” think of engineering, visions of math, gears, bridges and buildings pop up. After all, everybody knows engineering has nothing to do with people. And engineers certainly don’t possess the skills to deal with the rest of humanity.

Admittedly, the gentleman on the left spent most of his life in that warped state of mind. And he was a bit puzzled by the idea of “human factors” being part of industrial engineering. He figured it might be some kind of factorial thingamajig from high school algebra or college calculus.


After being lured into the IIE fold, it rapidly dawned on me that humans are the reason engineering – especially industrial engineering – exists. One lovely young IE termed her field “people engineering,” saying that’s the aspect that drew her to the profession.

After all, people do have to interact with gears, bridges and buildings – although I’ve worked with many in the journalism world who avoided math, viewing it as the second coming of Attila the Hun. And these are the folks reporting on economics and business.

But I digress into my previous life. These days, pieces like Jerry L. Harbour’s cover story “Understanding Human Performance,” which starts on Page 26, add more links to the human side of industrial engineering.

For Harbour, the problem with many models of human performance comes from their one-dimensional development. But many things contribute to a human’s ability to do a job, including how much she knows, how much training he has, how the tasks are designed and what the working conditions are.

What Harbour’s working model shows, and what every IE ought to know by now, is that unacceptable performance could derive from factors that have little to do with the person’s ability, training or knowledge.

So the next time your humans don’t meet expectations, take a look at Harbour’s model. What might be missing is something management failed to provide.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IIE. Reach him at or (770) 349-1110.