The Unwritten Laws (of Engineering)

Arkansas Diamond Hunters, Ike County, 1900, Library of Congress (LC-B2- 908-14), Public Domain. The picture shows two people with pickaxes against the background of a cart to which one dark-colored horse is harnessed. The photo is black and white, and slanted, taken from a negative stored in US archives.

One of the most delightful books I have read (listened to) this year was called “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering” by W. J. King. It is an up-to-date book full of extraordinary insight. Therefore, having one and only objection to it, in the first instinct I wanted to criticize the author, even looked for him in social media, for presenting the world “without women”. The book makes no attempt to account for the fact that women can be engineers or executives in large companies.

From the perspective of the query I did after that it was rather funny because the book was first published in 1944. In the USA, it remains on sale in its next edition and is available as an audiobook but I don’t know anything about it having been translated into Polish. It is a scientific work in the form of a book and it takes an hour and a half to listen to it.

From the book, you can learn what values ​​should be followed in large organizations. These are not values ​​related to a specific worldview, but resulting, as it seems to me, from the search for a balance between a harmonious, fair organization, a friendly working environment, and a product-oriented organization, focused on finalizing projects or market success.

The book is rigorously divided into categories, which means that its content can be quickly understood and possibly learned. It does not contain unnecessary finesse elements or descriptions. Only a few quotations from Shakespeare and American philosophers at the end of the book testify to the author’s reading. William Julian King continued his observations from the described publication as a scientist, retiring as a professor at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in 1969.

The book is addressed to young engineers, enabling them to understand why the large organizations they work for operate the way they do. Reading this book, one may find out whether it is better to keep superiors informed about things, even if they get upset about the reports they receive, or not to inform them so as not to upset them unnecessarily. One can find out which personal qualities make a future career in team management possible and what qualities make this type of work unpleasant and burdensome. The book gives examples of the right attitude towards other company departments. It explains the rules of diplomacy within the team towards subordinates and to colleagues at the same level. It helps to understand the rules governing the division of labor not from the point of view of orders and prohibitions, but the meaning and rationality of these rules. It explains why delegating work and transferring most serious scopes of tasks to subordinates is conducive to the development of the entire organization, enables careers at different levels of the hierarchy and enables the management to freely go on holidays.

A large part of the book explains to young novices how to make decisions (from the point of view of management) so that they do not feel offended when a decision directly affects their work, and so that they prepare for their future duties. By explaining why these decision-making methods are effective and prevent problems, young adepts can better understand the reasons why management made a particular decision. Understanding what motives are acceptable and what are unacceptable empowers young adepts to understand what is good for the company and what is potentially harmful – to themselves or to the project. Potentially, the described rules can even prevent pathologies such as bullying, and they certainly make it possible avoid the situation when a talented adept who does not get a mentor fails only because they do not understand the social layer of the organization.

The book presents the way of working in a siloed organization. Of course, much of today’s management science introduces entirely new principles (agile, lean, teal organizations, etc.). However, many, if not most, of the situations described in “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering” by W. J. King can be found in Poland today, not only in larger private companies, but also in public organizations. The system presented there shows which rules respected by people working at the lowest level of the hierarchy correspond to the rules respected (yes, and also applied) by people at the highest level of the hierarchy. For me, this is the first meaningful and comprehensive meritocracy textbook that I have ever come across.

The author was not a lawyer, so he completely avoided the idiotic discussion of whether unwritten law is law or not. For him, the described rules were law because they were known in organizations known to him. Respecting them translated into the company’s success, and violating them – into the resulting problems. The book presents a vision of a world where actions have consequences and reality is governed by the principles of cause-and-effect, not wishful thinking. The rules are written as an attempt to codify the general ethical principles of manufacturing enterprises, and their foundation has been laid down according to the rules: (1) most people are good, (2) a person is innocent until proved guilty.

In 1944, the United States prepared for the boom of innovation that would continue for the next decades. The book proves that even before the end of World War II, the American work culture was ready for the innovation boom, and that the success that followed had a solid social foundation. The description of principles the book contains might as well be the object of industrial espionage, which allows us to recognize how early the American culture developed the practice of sharing knowledge for the benefit of all. Reading this publication is pure pleasure.