Mistakes Made Lessons Learned

In his career, Herb Adams has pretty much done it all, and made mistakes along the way. Those stumbles, he claims, not only helped him grow, they are essential to the proper development of individuals, teams, and organizations.

Besides being something of a mythic character to Pontiac Trans-Am owners (see box, "Mistakes Along the Way"), Herb Adams is an engineer at American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM; Detroit, MI). There, he is deeply involved in the company's I-Ride program, designing and developing independent suspension systems that bolt in place of live axles on existing light trucks and SUVs. Yet his experience and attitude are trusted commodities in an industry that has seemingly put its collective faith in younger employees. "There is a definite benefit to having ‘gray hairs' in the organization," says Ron Schoenbach, director, Chassis Engineering at AAM. "They don't have all of the answers, but they can help guide some of the younger engineers in the right direction." It doesn't hurt, Schoenbach adds, when that mentor isn't someone who has been around so long that they think they have seen and done it all. "You need a visionary," he says, "a person with a ‘can-do' attitude." A person like Herb Adams.


A New Approach

Developing I-Ride is a study in fast, get-it-done teamwork and development. Realizing that Ford's across-the-board application of independent rear suspensions (IRSs) on SUVs locked it into a higher cost structure and reduced differentiation of models, Adams put together a team charged with investigating the creation of a bolt-in IRSn module for live axle vehicles, one that requires no modifications to the floor pan. The team consisted of Adams, his boss, Jim Downs, two finite element analysis (FEA) people, two computer-aided design (CAD) people, and two people from the shop. "We shared resources with our Advanced Axle and Rear-Steer groups, and traded things back and forth as needed."

Team interactions were comparatively ad hoc, what Adams describes as "Come over to my pod and tell me what you think" sessions that would happen during the development. "That kind of stuff," he explains, "draws on the practical experience of the people working on the project."

But what about things like CAD and FEA? How do they fit into this free-wheeling design process? Says Adams, "They're tools that you have to learn to use correctly, just like you learned to use a drawing board," (Adams does admit to occasionally using a drawing board), "though in many instances it's faster to study the problem, design the part in the shop, and then transfer that to the model." The information gained from this quick development process is used to create simulations, and quickly refine the model. Something, Adams admits, "that wouldn't be possible if you had all of the hours in the world with a drawing board and calculator."

And advanced technology notwithstanding, it's worth noting that the first I-Ride module–which underwent changes and further development before it became an actual product–was actually manufactured on a lathe and mill in Jim Downs' garage.


Experience Matters

This approach was refined during Adams' racing days, but draws upon a deeper well of experience. One that, he feels, often is overlooked. "You learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes," he says. "If you're not pushing the boundaries, you're not making mistakes. And if you're not making mistakes, you're not learning." Cognizant of the fact that corporations are risk-averse, Adams admits that turning engineers loose without any guidance is self-defeating. He suggests pairing new recruits with more experienced hands, while making sure there's room for them to grow. "It's important to have someone guide you along the way," he says, "who is flexible enough to let you make some mistakes as you proceed." As Adams sees it, this lets the new recruit–who may be an experienced engineer in a new position, or a recent college graduate–gain experience without threatening the successful completion a project, or putting a company in financial jeopardy.

"There are two ways to approach a project," he says. "You can be very exact, very precise, and dead-perfect the first time. Or you build it, test it, and redesign it. Usually it takes a combination of the two approaches to be successful, but you often learn much, much more the second way." Adams also believes it is necessary to build a team made up of younger and older members who come from more than one discipline, and create an atmosphere in which each member is willing to learn from the others. In addition, bureaucracy must to be minimized to allow the team to focus on its task, and make the most out of its inevitable mistakes. "If you're working on a brand new product," Adams says, "you'd better get used to the fact that you'll need to go through four or five iterations before you get something good out of it," but that this learning curve means, "it's easier to zero-in on the correct answer the next time around." It's a lesson he learned on the race track. "Good engineering is like racing," Adams says. "Don't talk about it. Do it. Because they're not going to delay the race for you."