Dr. David G. Ullman is an active product designer. He has taught, researched, and written about design and decision making for over twenty years. He is the founder of Robust Decisions, Inc. and co-designer of Accord decision-making software. His text, The Mechanical Design Process (3rd edition, McGraw Hill, 2003), is used at many universities. He has published more than twenty papers on the mechanical product design process and decision making. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.
I encountered Ullman's work through his interest in the late Col. John Boyd's work with the OODA loop cycle (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). In any competitive environment, whether between individuals or between organizations, those who can make effective decisions in the least time will end up dominating the strategic landscape. Delay and dithering in making decisions can be even worse than making bad decisions. At least making a bad decision will let you go on to making the next decision. In the corporate environment, many decisions are delayed in iterated observing and orienting because of fears over uncertainty surrounding the decision. Ullman writes that many times the "OODA Loop has been reduced to the stuttering sound of "OO-OO-OO" - leading to a decision by running out of time or a command decision by a superior who has less knowledge than those supposed to make the decision. Aside from taking too long, such forced decisions are often weak and lead to failures. Ullman is concerned to help readers make "robust" decisions - those that achieve successful results and survive the test of time.
Ullman brings his long background as a design and systems engineer, and professor of mechanical design to explain his methodology for making successful decisions - especially when confronted with divergent team beliefs, incomplete knowledge, uncertainty, limited time, and risk. He starts with simple principles and examples and progressively builds depth and power into the methodology as he analyses the limitations of each previous chapter's methodology.
Making Robust Decisions is based on a major reworking and extension of an earlier book - 12 Steps to Robust Decisions: Building Consensus in Product Development and Business.Read more ›
"A robust decision is the best possible choice, one found by eliminating all the uncertainty possible within available resources, and then choosing with known and acceptable levels of satisfaction and risk"
The book is a discussion of the challenges of making complex decisions, especially those with alternatives and uncertainty, and a methodology/software platform for approaching these kinds of decisions. It's a quick read with some great advice for anyone trying to make decisions, even if they don't want to adopt a more formal methodology. The sections on uncertainty, weighting of criteria and belief maps were particularly interesting.
The book has some nice discussions of various decision-making processes. The discussion of the impact of not deciding (management by wringing of hands) is well covered, David noting that in business the competition keeps taking action and you keep using resources without adding the value a decision would add. In other words, getting stuck at the decision point can have severe, even grave consequences. He also discussed briefly how a well defined decision process can help you benefit from the wisdom of crowds in that groups of estimates are better than single ones.
I've had an opportunity to use the online software offered by the author. The book outlines and describes in detail what requirements are necessary to Make Robust Decisions. It's not perfect, but nothing ever is. This book is great reading for those that need to make difficult decisions or predictions on projects, or other management related decisions that are unknown. I've already recommended this book to several people based on their attempts in making decisions that were difficult. Hopefully they're as impressed with the outcomes as I have been.
Dr. Ullman's book provides practical guidance for making difficult or complex decisions, as an individual or with a group. He provides a variety of tools suitable for different types and levels of decisions. He provides new insight about the types of uncertainty that often makes decisions difficult. The Bayesian based tool he discusses simplifies applying a seemingly complex approach to make better decisions, and to clarify what to do next. The focus on what to do next is one of the powerful unique insights provided by the robust decision approach.
The book is well organizaed and presented. The writing is clear and concise. The illustrations are useful. Although he has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and has been a Professor, the practical experience of the author comes out. The book is easy to read and apply.
To begin, I'm a fan of David Ullman and his work. He's a pragmatically brilliant engineer, recently retired as (arguably) the nation's best engineering design educator, founder of several interesting companies, etc. I suppose other candidates for "best educator" might include Woodie Flowers at MIT and Dean Kamen for his FIRST program. That's the disclosure.
Most of the world makes decisions from gut feel and then puts a veneer of explanation over it. There's no better recent example of this than how we got into the Iraq war, the relatively weak "what if" planning that preceded operations and the like. Like most decisions based on an individual or sub-cultural sense of certainty, when things go wrong there's a desire to rewrite history or shift the blame. Ullman's too much of an engineer to use this example, but the world might be a different place if everyone in the government read his book before making mission-critical decisions.
Ullman's book is an appeal to make key decisions a different way, backed with lots of details about why and how. Find a group of smart people with relevent but diverse opinions and experiences. Then use a disciplined approach to get at both the objective facts and a range of "gut" feels to arrive at what Ullman calls a "robust" decision. His preferred process (among many illustrated) even gives a sense of the confidence level, using a Bayesian approach in the background, that things will go according to plan.
My main criticism of the book (and the process) is that people will resist a more disciplined approach. It's an unnatural act, somewhat like asking teenagers to think with their brains.Read more ›