Engineer Dan Dotson: Creating innovative Solutions

Engineer Dan Dotson once did a high school book report on Thomas Edison. “He might have inspired me more than I know,” Dan says.

“Genius is one percent inspiration,
ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
–Thomas Edison

Edison knew all about that. He barreled through obstacles and never gave up. Regarding his work on the light bulb, he said . . .

“I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once.
I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.
When I have eliminated the ways that will not work,
I will find the way that will work.”
–Thomas Edison

This sounds like a man who was at peace with the creative process. What the world sees as “failure” is not actually failure, but one more step toward solving the problem. Perhaps that’s entwined with a bit of playfulness and serendipity as unexpected discoveries are made.

Dan Dotson is one of the mentors who greatly encouraged and influenced my son Jeff in FIRST Lego League (FLL) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC).

A little background . . . Dan is a Principle Hardware Engineer with over 30 years of engineering experience including 26 years at Rockwell Automation. He is a product hardware architect and inventor for human machine interface and industrial controller products. He has a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and a Master of Science in control engineering and computer architecture from Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) University.

Like Thomas Edison, winning awards—what we often deem as success—is not Dan’s ultimate goal. “I like to invent and design things that are cool,” he says. “Meaning they make people go wow – that is neat or clever. It makes people think that more is possible. That is usually what my goal for robotics season is – a cool robot. Not ‘win’ or ‘make it to Worlds’ or whatever.”

And cool things he has invented. Check out this list of Dan’s patents at Rockwell Automation (as Gary Dan Dotson):

Google Patents

For ten years, Dan has been a robotics coach for FLL and FTC programs at Heritage Christian Schools, in which two of his three daughters participated. He and his wife Nancy have been married 28 years and have lived in Muskego, WI for 27 years. Dan and Nancy attend Faith Bible Church in Greenfield, WI where Dan leads one of the church small group Bible studies.

We’ve all heard that necessity is the mother of invention. According to Dan, “That need could be real or be for pleasure. In some cases it also seems that laziness is the mother of invention.”

Whatever the initial need, there are multiple ways of arriving at a solution.

“My 7th grade art teacher made us memorize the definition of art.
I still remember it – ‘Art is the rearranging of concepts or ideas
into a new form that is structurally pleasing and primarily for aesthetic appearance.’
Meaning most creations are the rearranging of something
that already exists – hopefully as an improvement.”
–Dan Dotson

Whether creating art, improving machines, or inventing useful gadgets, it’s all about seeing and combining materials in a new way. And it’s all about meeting needs and solving problems.

So how does an engineer arrive at solutions?

The Mechanics of Creativity

Dan: Engineers are taught ideation and creative thinking processes. There are many techniques – some require formal training. Here are a few we use at work and/or with FLL:

• Brainstorming
• Reverse brainstorming
• TRIZ
• Six Hats
• SWOT
• Pugh Matrix

BRAINSTORMING

Dan: By far the most popular is Brainstorming – we have used this with FLL and FTC. The object is to generate lots of ideas, no matter how crazy. The object is to provide as many new ideas as possible or build on other people’s ideas. Quantity, not quality.

The hardest thing is keeping logical people
from criticizing ideas immediately.
If you can’t help but criticize, change their idea so it works.
If you can’t think of new ideas,
modify an existing idea to make it better.

(Me: This goes hand in hand with my previous posts—Monday Metaphor Musings—where I encourage the brainstorming technique of clustering, AKA webbing.)

REVERSE BRAINSTORMING

This is a combination of brainstorming and reversal techniques. Instead of asking how to solve a problem, you ask, “How could I cause this problem?” Instead of asking how to get results, you ask, “How could I achieve the opposite effect?”

Reverse brainstorming involves 5 main steps: identify the problem, reverse the question, collect methods, reverse question again, evaluate solutions.

As with regular brainstorming, it’s still key to let ideas flow and not reject anything during the process. Only evaluate ideas in the final step.

Dan: Reverse Brainstorming is fun, especially for sarcastic people. We used this with FLL. This is trying to think of how not to do something. Write down how not to do it, and then write how to do the opposite.

For example, the FTC and FLL kids would try to think of
how to get the lowest score possible and
get as many penalties as they can.
This is really fun and brings out a lot of creativity.
Lots of laughs on how to be the worst team
with the worst robot ever!
–Dan Dotson

It doesn’t seem useful until you realize that – hey! those are penalties that we want to avoid and what can we do to avoid them? Or how can we keep our partner from getting penalized?

There is also the part about scoring for the opponent – sometimes this becomes a strategy that more advanced teams use for an opponent that has broken down or can’t perform. Qualifying position is determined by matches won and ranking points. If more than one team wins all of their matches, then ranking points are used to decide place.

Ranking points are the lowest score in a match – if your opponent has 0 points, you might win the match, but will have 0 ranking points. If this happens, it makes sense to score points as you can for your opponent as long as you are sure you will still win the match.

TRIZ

TRIZ (pronounced treez) is a Russian acronym. The system originated in the U.S.S.R. between 1946 and 1985. It stands for the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, also known as TIPS in English. It’s based more of data and logic than intuition. This involves finding and adapting current solutions and resolving contradictions.

Dan: TRIZ is somewhat painful, but proven.

I have only used TRIZ in training exercises at work. It is a formal (supposedly proven) way to think of every aspect of something and how to improve it.

My opinion is that this is not out of the box thinking at all. It is in the box and everything about the box – EVERYTHING. Very boring but maybe it helps disciplined people be creative. Not really for someone with an attention deficit.

The most logical solution doesn’t always win anyway.

SIX THINKING HATS

This is looking at a problem from all angles. It involves changing the way you see it, and changing viewpoints several times—but one at a time. This technique was created by Edward de Bono, explained in his 1985 book Six Thinking Hats. He is considered a leading authority in creative thinking.

One way to approach this technique is to consider how different professionals or customers would view a problem. How would a doctor, salesman, or architect see it? This method can be used alone or in a group.

Each hat represents a different thinking style. Here they are in summary:

• White Hat—focus on facts, the data and statistics for analyzing current information.

Red Hat—this “emotional” hat looks at issues intuitively, considering other people’s emotional responses, too. No need for logic or rational thoughts here. Hunches and gut reactions are welcome. Share all feelings: likes, dislikes, anger, fears . . .

Black Hat—wearing this hat helps you see the risks, pitfalls, and flaws of a particular decision or plan, to be prepared for difficulties and to prevent them.

Yellow Hat—this employs sunny optimism, with a focus on benefits and value.

Green Hat—involves employing creative solutions and deflects criticism. It welcomes the unconventional through brainstorming and other methods. Explore the possibilities.

Blue Hat—This manages the thinking process through the facilitator–the one who enforces following the rules of each hat. This directs discussion and determines when to switch hats.

Check out the website above for examples of how to use the Six Hats in decision making and exploring options.

By employing all six of these hats, people broaden the range of possible solutions. This kind of “parallel thinking” avoids competition and arguments and moves into cooperation and discussion.

This method fosters flexibility by learning how to shift from one thinking style to another . . . as easily as putting on a hat.

Dan: Six or Seven Hats is okay, but not as fun for people with ADHD or people who have ideas flowing faster than they can listen to other people talk.

SWOT

SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. SWOT analysis was developed in the 1960s by Edmund P. Learned and others, espoused in their book Business Policy, Text and Cases.

Assess these four elements of your business proposal in four columns for a side-by-side comparison. Then evaluate the pros and cons, benefits  and risks.

Dan: SWOT is also used by our business and marketing.

PUGH MATRIX

A Pugh Matrix—or a criteria-based matrix—is a tool that helps you to choose between ideas according to the most important criteria. Each alternative is placed in columns in a chart. Options are scored, then ranked. It is often used for engineering design decisions in product development, when considering customer requirements or ways to increase efficiency. Others use it for decisions about investments, vendors, or other projects.

Dan: This basically maps options, weighs attributes, and allows a complex decision to be made quantitatively. I had my daughter Heather use it for picking a college.

It is really just a chart that allows you to compare various options against a baseline.

A simple example is building 3 robots and then listing the qualities that you were trying to attain. Is it accurate? is it fast? is it reliable?

Picking a baseline and comparing each with the baseline (same – 0, better +1, worse -1) will give you an unweighted score.

Then you can go back and add 2 minuses or 2 plus marks if something is way better or way worse. Then you can take it even farther and give each criteria a weighting of importance and end up with a mathematical comparison.

Then you an try to build another robot that is the best at everything (if that is possible.)
This is sometimes referred to as BOB: Best Of Breed.

No one option can always be the lowest cost and have the most features or the fastest and the most accurate. But it helps to think about it and at least make a choice.

For more information, check out these websites:

Reverse Brainstorming

More Reverse Brainstorming

TRIZ

More on TRIZ

Six Hats

More on Six Hats

SWOT

PUGH Matrix

What is your favorite way to solve an open-ended problem? Do you have a favorite strategy?
OR
Which of these methods appeals to you?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

P.S. Join me next time to meet another engineer and robotics coach, Mark Keup.


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5 thoughts on “Engineer Dan Dotson: Creating innovative Solutions

  1. Once again, this was another fantastic post! A few years ago we hired a new administrator in the central office. During her interview she used the the six hats method to demonstrate how she would implement a new initiative that would fall under her responsibility. She actually blew the other applicants out of the water with that approach. I also am drawn to the reverse brainstorming strategy. That is an intriguing approach to anticipating roadblocks ahead!

  2. Well, you opened a whole new world for me. Reverse brainstorming caught my attention. And the six hats just sounds fun. Interestingly (but coming as no surprise) my brain almost shut down at the Pugh Matrix. Backing out for a bigger picture, it is so impressive that at some point in time, all these strategies were codified and named!

    What a well-organized post, incidentally. And Dan sounds like a great guy! I could see my engineer son enjoying a sit-down with him.

    1. Yes, I think all these different problem-solving strategies cover the gamut of people and the personality types who will use them. Some will embrace the Six Hats or Reverse Brainstorming, while others will gravitate toward the Pugh Matrix. Some will benefit from both or all. Take your pick!

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