Matthew A. Balmer, P.E., Senior Electrical Engineer, Mitsubish Electric Power Products Inc.
Understanding the difference between Engineering decision making & management decision making
Engineering decision making can be an inherently difficult task, steeped in regulations and unknowns. As engineers progress through their career, they encounter what I labeled as “management-creep”. Management-creep is the undetectable transition from engineer to manager which naturally occurs as the engineer’s skills and responsibilities increase with time. As an engineer moves forward into management, it is important to remember you are an engineer first and held to high standards that influence the engineering decision making process.
This paper discusses the following:

  • Tightly Coupled Systems
  • The Management Decision Making Process
  • The Engineering Decision Making Process
  • Decision Making Impediments
  • Conflict of Interest.

As you progress through your engineering career and move into management, always remember:
Engineering is an activity, other than purely manual and physical work, which brings about the utilization of the materials and laws of nature for the good of humanity. R. E. Hellmund
What is a Decision?
Before defining the management decisions and engineering decisions the term “decision” needs to be understood: What is a decision? Merriman dictionary defines a decision as the act or process of deciding. Further investigation into this question provides a clearer definition:  Gupta (2000) provides the following definition “a decision is an act of choice” (p. 190). Gupta (2000) further states “decision making may, in other words, be defined as a process of selecting the best course of action out of many alternatives” (p. 190). Gupta (2000) concludes “an effective decision is that which results in achieving the desired objective and the effective and efficient objective decision leads to achieving the desired objective with minimum waste of human and material resources (p. 190).
Understanding A Tightly Coupled System
Before delving into the ethics and the decision making process, one needs to understand the concept of a tightly coupled system. According Harris, Pritchard, Rabins, James, and Englehardt (2014), “processes are tightly coupled if they are connected in such a way that one process is known to affect another and will do so within a short time. In tight coupling, there is usually little time to correct a failure and little likelihood of confining a failure to one part of the system. As a result, the whole system is damaged” (p. 126). Engineers always work with tightly coupled systems and it’s important for the engineer to understand the interplay of these systems when making engineering decisions.
Management Decisions Versus Engineering Decisions
Management Decision Making
Proper management decision making is selecting the best course of action and alternatives that best fit the organizational goals. These decisions are pragmatic, situation oriented, and focused on organizational objectives. According to Gupta (2000) “decisions in an organization are ultimately related to achieving a desired objective which may be termed as a commitment. Consequently, the decisions have to be relevant, accurate, [and] appropriate” (p. 191).
In order to understand proper management decisions, one concept must be understood: whatever a manager does he does through making decisions (Gupta 2000. p 191). These decisions are focused on the good of the organization and are not effected by outside influences like that of proper engineering decisions. Harris et al (2014) states the function of a manger “is to direct the activities of the organization, including the activities of engineers” (p. 153). Proper management decisions do not consider any external standards or practices and is focused on the organizational assets such as cost control, marketing, employee morale and scheduling (Harris et al. 2014, p. 153).
Problems with Proper Management Decisions
The inherent features of proper management decisions (pragmatic, situation oriented, and focus on organizational goals) will distort the decision-making process to the point where it’s haphazard. Proper management decisions are pragmatic because managers examine the situation for a practical solution without considering other theories or constraints that impact the decision-making process.
In other words, management decisions look at the surface without probing into the details and the decision’s effect.
Management decisions are merely based on the manager’s moral standard when the decision is being made, whereas, proper engineering decisions are judged on a combination of reasonable care, the principle of proportionate care, engineering ethics, engineering standards, and engineering judgment. In a discussion on management decision-making Gupta (2000) describes “the principle of insufficient reason” in which “it is based on the premise that there is a 50:50 possibility of both positive and negative outcomes to occur. The decision-maker should bear this fact in mind when he cannot estimate the likelihood of a certain outcome to occur” (p. 200).
Management decisions are situation oriented, in that, the manager tasked to make a decision under a given set of situational conditions. According to Gupta (2000, p. 194) managers are faced with two types of decisions: ordinary and strategic. Gupta (2000) stated ordinary decision “… are repetitive decisions which are taken to carry out day-to-day operation of the organization. They are usually problems which relate to internal problems of the organization” (p. 194). Furthermore, Gupta (2000) states strategic decision “… have a vital bearing on the existence and efficiency of the organization. Decisions relating to … problems which involve top management may be stated as instances of strategic decisions” (p. 194).
Finally, management decisions are focused organizational goals that place encumbrances on the manager’s decision-making process in the form of impediments and conflicts of interest. Managers have the option to include or exclude others from the decision-making process when their opinions are in disagreement with the manager’s decision.
Engineering Decision Making
The objective of a proper engineering decisions is to achieve the best course of action to protect public health and welfare, respect for the individual moral agency, and maintaining organizational goals. Effective engineering decisions achieve these objectives by using a combination of what I call “decision directors” comprised of: reasonable care, the principle of proportionate care, engineering ethics, engineering standards, and engineering judgment. Furthermore, these decisions must be free from encumbrances in the form of impediments and conflicts of interest, which have a negative impact on proper engineering decisions.
Understanding Engineering Decisions Directors
As previously discussed, engineering decisions use directors to guide the engineer in making proper engineering decisions. Below is a discussion of each decision director and how these directors need to be considered when making an engineering decision.
Reasonable Care
The basis for Proper Engineering Decisions is based on the reasonable care or responsible oversight model. According to authors Harris Pritchard, Rabins, James, and Englehardt (2014) “engineers who have responsible charge for a project are expected to exercise careful oversight before putting their stamp of approval on the project” (p. 56). As simple as this may seem, there is no simple algorithm that can be used from project to project. According to Harris et al (2014) “however, what careful oversight requires will vary with the project in question in ways that resist an algorithmic articulation of the precise steps to be taken and the criteria to be used” (p. 56).
Engineers possess specialized knowledge in various fields of practice, and each practice has its specific code of ethics. A common theme among these various codes of ethics is the requirement for engineers to exercise reasonable care and accept responsibility for their actions. Examples of these society codes include:

  • National Society of Professional Engineers (2007) “engineers may accept assignments and assume responsibility for coordination of an entire project and sign and seal the engineering documents for the entire project, provided that each technical segment is signed and sealed only by the qualified engineers who prepared the segment” (para. II.2.c).
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (1990) “to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment” (para. 1).
  • Association for Computing Machinery (1992) “when designing or implementing systems, computing professionals must attempt to ensure that the products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways, will meet social needs, and will avoid harmful effects to health and welfare” (para. 1.1).

The Principle of Proportionate Care
Van de Poel, I. and Goldberg, D.E. (2010) states that Kenneth Alpern defines the principle of proportionate care as “when one is in a position to contribute to greater harm or when one is in a position to play a more critical part in causing harm than is another person, one must exercise greater care to avoid doing so” (p. 168). In other words, the engineers have a duty to use reasonable care in their field of practice to protect public health and welfare. Van de Poel and Goldberg (2010) further states “therefore engineers have a great responsibility because if they fail to do their job with technical competency or commitment to ethics, not only may an individual be harmed or killed … but dozens, hundreds, even thousands of individuals” (p. 168). The principle of proportionate care forms the basis of the engineer’s moral responsibility
Engineering Ethics
Engineering ethics are rooted in both the utilitarian model of common morality and the respect for persons model of common morality. These two models differ in terms of their moral standard. According to authors Harris et al (2014) “the moral standard of the utilitarian model is: those actions or practices should be followed that maximize human well-being” (p. 35). Harris et al., (2014) further states “given this standard, we can say that the function of morality is to promote human welfare or well-being” (p. 35).
The respect for people model is focused on the individual’s ability to make their own decisions. According to Harris et al (2014) “the moral standard of the respect for persons model is: those actions or practices should be followed that protect and respect the moral agency of human beings” (p. 35). Harris et al (2014) define moral agency as “the capacity to choose goals and purposes of one’s own” (p. 35).
The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics establishes the ethical criteria that engineers must adhere to when making decisions. According to the first fundamental canon of the National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics (2007) “engineers in the fulfillment of their professional duties shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” (I.1). This means that proper engineering decisions are based upon actions that promote public welfare as predicated by the utilitarian model of common morality. Furthermore, proper engineering decisions based on holding paramount public safety, health welfare removes obstacles allowing the individual to choose one’s own goals and purposes as proposed in the respect for persons model of common morality. Furthermore proper engineering decisions demonstrates a respect for people and according to Harris et al (2014) “respecting the moral agency of others requires that we give them the rights necessary to exercise their moral agency and to pursue their well-being” (p. 47). With this in mind, proper engineer decisions ensures people’s rights to a society that is free from harm, thus allowing the individual to choose one’s own goals and purposes.
Engineering Standards
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) (2014) defines a standard as: “a standard can be defined as a set of technical definitions and guidelines, “how to” instructions for designers, manufacturers, and users. Standards promote safety, reliability, productivity, and efficiency in almost every industry that relies on engineering components or equipment. Standards can run from a few paragraphs to hundreds of pages, and are written by experts with knowledge and expertise in a particular field who sit on many committees” (Standards and Certification FAQ section, para 1). Moreover, the ASME (2014) maintains that standards are effective “standards are a vehicle of communication for producers and users. They serve as a common language, defining quality and establishing safety criteria. Costs are lower if procedures are standardized; training is also simplified. Interchangeability is another reason; it is not uncommon for a consumer to buy a nut in California for a bolt purchased in New Jersey” (Standards and Certification FAQ section, para 3).
Engineering standards development is based on the utilitarian model of common morality because they seek to promote the public’s well-being. Engineering standards are under constant scrutiny and are updated on a routine basis to reflect changes in technology and improve safety. Harris et al (2014) describes a prime example where the ASME responded to boiler explosion problems “… the involvement of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in establishing specifications for pressure vessels in the United States. After a series of tragic explosions, the US Congress decided it was time to write specifications for safe boiler construction into federal law. The professional expertise of mechanical engineers was essential in establishing these criteria” (p. 86).
Engineering Judgment
Engineering judgment has its roots in the engineer’s technical competence. According to the NSPE (2007), “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall perform services only in areas of their competence” (para. I.2). Engineering technical competence is gained through knowledge, training, and experience with experience being key to making proper engineering decisions. According to Davis (1992) “good judgment comes from experience; experience, from bad judgment” (p. 1). Furthermore, Harris et al (2014) states “regulatory standards and standards of competence are intended to provide some assurance of quality, safety, and efficiency in engineering. It is important to realize, however, that they also leave considerable room for professional discretion in engineering design and practice” (p. 53). Finally, as Davis (1992) states “yet, an engineer without engineering judgment …or any other professional without the particular form of judgment distinguishing his or her profession from all others, would be an incompetent “layman” who could not practice the profession in question” (p. 1).
Decision Making Impediments
Impediments are obstacles that obscure and negatively impact proper engineering decisions. Pennsylvania State University (2014) indicates there are eight impediments that negatively impact engineering decision making, these impediments are listed and described below:
Self-Interest: Having only concern for our own interests so much that they “get in the way” making us act contrary to what others expect from us as professionals. Extreme case is: egoism where there is an exclusive concern to satisfy one’s own interests, even at the possible expense of others.
Self-deception: Intentional avoidance of truths we would find it painful to confront consciously. In its milder form is rationalization – “I’m not really doing this just for myself”
Fear: Fear of acknowledging our mistakes, losing a job, or negative consequences (punishment). Example is whistle-blowing which requires great courage and determination.
Ignorance: Ignorance to vital information. Examples: “can’t know everything”, “willful avoidance”, “lack of imagination”, etc.
Egocentric tendencies: Making decisions only from your own perspective is a special form of ignorance. The trap is failing to understand the perspective of others because it takes effort to acquire more objective viewpoints. Someone with this tendency may also assume that everyone else thinks just as they do which tends to be very inaccurate. Keep in mind egocentric is not the same as egotistic (self-interested) – but it can happen at the same time. A great example is when a software developer designs a system from their viewpoint and not the viewpoint of a typical user.
Microscopic Vision: Having accurate detailed knowledge at a microscopic level but failing to see things at an ordinary level. This is a constrained limited perspective that may be very accurate but has a narrow view. This narrow view will cause one to miss things at an ordinary level and fail to act on them. Engineers need to understand the big picture and the larger implications of what they are developing: tightly coupled systems.
Uncritical Acceptance of Authority: This impediment shows the importance of exercising professional autonomy. Engineers who are usually not their own boss defer decisions to authority. This distancing effect especially in large organizations may decrease an engineer’s sense of personal accountability for consequences of his/her actions.
Groupthink: Groupthink can be likened to mob-mentality where the desire for conformity creates a dysfunctional and irrational decision-making team: That is the group come to agreement at the expense of critical thinking. Groupthink is characterized by consensus decisions without critical evaluation, suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and isolation from outside influences which creates the illusion of invulnerability.
Impediments results in decisions that are less effective and efficient resulting in alternate objectives that are counterproductive to the desired objective. According to authors Harris, Pritchard, Rabins, James, and Englehardt (2009) describe impediments as“…attitudes and frames of mind can contribute to less than fully responsible actions, whether it be intentional, reckless, or merely negligent” (p. 37).
Conflict of Interest
Many consider an engineering conflict of interest as an engineer receiving money for making a judgment that favors a specific predetermined outcome. However, Harris et al (2014) points out that a conflict of interest is an action “that is likely to influence professional judgment” (p. 104). Davis and Stark (2001) clarify when conflicts of interest arise and occur: “a conflict of interest arises when an employee’s loyalty to the company is prejudiced by actual or personal benefit from an outside source. A conflict of interest occurs whenever an [employee] allows the possibility of direct or indirect personal gain to influence his or her judgment” (p. 115). With this in mind, a conflict of interest can cloud proper engineering decisions, thus causing the engineer not to select the best course of action to achieve the desired goals.
A decision is selecting the best course of action out of many alternatives that leads to desired objective. Engineers design and evaluate tightly coupled systems where an incorrect decision will result in multiple failures. Consequently, engineering decision making is rooted in public safety and the rights of individuals. Engineering decisions need to use the decision directors and be free from impediments and conflict of interest. As engineers move into management, they must realize that corporate pressures can result in decisions that are focused on organizational assets rather than the public safety. When faced with this situation, however difficult, it is important to remember you are an engineer first and you have responsibility for public safety.

Matthew Balmer, P.E. is a Senior Electrical Engineer Mitsubishi Electric Power Products and has 32 years of electrical design experience with power systems and control systems.  He holds B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering / Mathematics and a Physics minor from Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA, 1984.  
American Society of Mechanical Engineers (2014). Standards & Certification FAQ.
Retrieved from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers website  —standards
Association for Computing Machinery (1992) ACM Code of Professional Ethics.
Retrieved from the Association for Computing Machinery website
Davis, M (1992). Perspective on the Profession, Vol.11, No.2.
Davis, M. (1998). Practical and professional Ethics Thinking like an Engineer Studies in the Ethics of  the Profession. Oxford University Press, New York
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Gupta, N.S. (2000). Management Principles, Practices, and Techniques. Atlantic publishers and distributers. New Delhi.
Harris, C.E., Pritchard, M.S., Rabins M.J., James, R. & Englehardt, E. (2009). Engineering Ethics Concepts and Cases. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Boston, MA
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Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (1990). IEEE Code of Ethics.  Retrieved from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers website
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