The amazing Richard Feynman and his approach to problems

I’m fascinated by Richard Feynman.  Particularly by his perspective on problems.  Feynman is known for his involvement in the Manhattan Project and winning the Noble Prize for his work on quantum physics.


When Feynman was asked to join the Manhattan Project, he was only 22 years old.  Here, he joined some of the world’s top physicist and engineers, pooling their combined brainpower to try to beat the Germans in the race to develop the Atomic Bomb. 


One of the main issues the team faced was the sheer volume of calculations that needed to be performed.  He came to the attention of the lead scientists after he devised a very clever way of restructuring how they all worked together on these calculations.


The problem was, without computers, all calculations had to be done by hand.  This made it incredibly slow.  Feynman devised a way of getting calculations done in parallel.  He saw a way of separating out the operations, so they could be worked on in parallel and then the results merged back together.  This led to a massive leap forward in productivity.  Instead of 3 large problems being solved in 9 months, the team was solving 9 large problems in just over 3 months.


He thought about problems in a certain way that enabled him to see things others didn’t see.  He looked at a problem from more angles than anybody else.  He had a habit of working out the problem for himself.  He never accepted an answer at face value.  He saw beauty in the complexity hidden in plain sight.


“You have to stop and think about the complexity.  The inconceivable nature of nature!”  – Richard Feynman


Years later, the same kind of thinking led him to create Feynman diagrams in relation to the area of Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED).  It was for this work he was awarded the Noble Prize.  At the time there were many issues with QED theory.  Sometimes QED seemed to work, and sometimes it didn’t!  To be precise sometimes QED calculations would produce an answer of infinity, and in general answers weren’t very predictable.  This was stumping the smartest physicists in the world at the time.


To work around the infinity problem in QED, Feynman came up with a revolutionary idea.  He developed simple little diagrams that allowed him to side step the complicated calculations required for QED and make meaningful predictions about the world.  He associated certain terms in the complex equations with a simple little cartoon.  These little cartoons became known as Feynman diagrams and they enabled a simplification of the complex.  It turns out, this concept is so useful in physics, that it is now being used in a variety of fields such as solid-state theory.


The key takeaway here is to look at how and what you work on as an engineer.  As Feynman did.  Ask why you do what you do, the way you do it!  Big problems are usually best solved by examining how they can be broken out into little problems.  Then solve all the little problems.  Better yet figure out how to solve all the little problems in parallel.


To give yourself a better sense of how this man thought, have a look at his answer to a simple question of why two magnets repel or attract each other.


Lillian Gilbreth, Organizational Psychology, and Industrial Management

The study of organizational psychology and industrial engineering is all about optimization.

It’s about improving industrial efficiency by removing unnecessary complexity, simplifying tasks, and improving conditions for workers.

Lillian Gilbreth (1878‐1972) was from Oakland CA, and she grew up a shy girl who excelled academically and went to college to obtain a masters and a doctorate in psychology.

She is considered to be the first industrial organizational psychologist, pioneering many industrial management techniques.

In Ms. Gilbreth’s time, this was something new. Saliently, she developed new ways of applying her background in psychology to organizational efficiency. Industrial and
organizational psychology is the study of human behavior relating to the workplace. It applies psychological theories and principles to organizations and workers in their place of work. It also applies to our work-life more generally.

This is a game about eliminating complexity. Because it means looking at repetitive work and simplifying processes. It’s the pursuit of making the product better, working conditions better, and reducing operating costs. This is the paradigm of looking at factories as systems and making them function efficiently.

Why Organizational Psychology is Important

Organizational psychology is interesting to learn and should be a critical part of every engineer’s thought process in our design work. You can improve user experience by using these principles. Every factory and every system can be designed better by using insights from Ms Gilbreth’s industrial management work.

As engineers, our job is to learn how to design and build the most optimized systems. Every day, in multiple little ways, we have a chance to fix things or at least identify things that could be done better. The best engineers love to spot things that could be done better and do something about it.

Follow through, even knowing that you won’t always get support. The middle of commissioning and qualification is the wrong time for second guessing design: ask ANY experienced engineer.

The science is in; this isn’t a new idea. It was true last century and it will be true next century. Focus on eliminating complexity, focus on making it easier for operations and other manufacturing support staff to get their jobs done.

Our part to play as engineers is a very important one in this great infinite game of improvement.