Applied Minds | Guru Madhavan

Summary of: Applied Minds: How Engineers Think
By: Guru Madhavan


In the book ‘Applied Minds: How Engineers Think’, Guru Madhavan explores the engineering mindset and how it can uncover innovative solutions to various problems. This summary highlights the unique combination of structure, constraints, and trade-offs employed by engineers to achieve optimum results under given circumstances. Through various real-world examples such as the ATM, the adaptation of penicillin production, and the invention of Pampers disposable diapers, Madhavan unpacks the importance of understanding customer needs, being open to change, and balancing efficiency with empathy.

Gribeauval – Engineer Extraordinaire

Gribeauval was an 18th-century engineer who revolutionized the French military with his technical innovations. His focus on observing problematic patterns and visualizing the unseen, along with embracing everyday limits, led him to prioritize design choices and accept trade-offs. Gribeauval’s mix of approaches and techniques encompassed the three core elements of the engineering mindset: Structure, Constraints, and Trade-offs. By using “modular systems thinking,” Gribeauval was able to combine his talents in a structured way and revolutionize cannons. Through his innovations, he was able to improve the cannon’s force and usefulness by introducing a height-adjusting mechanism, cast-iron axles, larger wheels, and leather straps that made it easier for soldiers to move and adjust them on battlefields. Despite not being a military mind, Gribeauval proved that engineering can find solutions in any field by producing utility under constraints.

The Power of Optimization

To optimize, you need to continuously work on different models and their improvements. This means critically analyzing assumptions and looking for creative solutions to complex problems. Take the example of Stockholm’s rush-hour congestion. Building another bridge was the obvious solution, but upon further analysis, IBM engineers found that tolls would deter commuters from driving and encourage them to use public transportation. By using advanced mathematical modeling and critical thinking, they were able to provide a surprising solution that not only reduced congestion but also made the city greener and more livable.

Efficient Engineering Innovations

Engineers adopt matrix thinking to achieve efficiency in their creations. This approach involves organizing ideas in a tabular format and combining each cell in every possible horizontal, vertical, and diagonal permutation. The self-service supermarket concept invented by Clarence Saunders, founder of Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, is a testament to the power of efficient engineering. The self-service shopping model significantly boosted sales, and it has become the norm in modern retail. Another example of an efficient innovation is the automated teller machine (ATM), which revolutionized banking as we know it today. The ATM lets you access your account 24/7, withdraw cash, and bank from convenient locations. The motivation behind the ATM’s invention by Scottish engineer John Shepherd-Barron was to provide customers with access to their accounts at any time. These examples demonstrate that efficiency is a driving force behind engineering innovations that improve our daily lives. The success of any infrastructure design project or policy is heavily influenced by public behavior, according to the book.

Discovering Penicillin: The Power of Adaptation

Alexander Fleming accidently discovered penicillin in 1928, but it was not until Margaret Hutchinson’s development of the “deep-tank fermentation process” that it became widely available and saved countless lives during the 1940s. Hutchinson’s adaptation of the production method went unrecognised, proving adaptation as a pre-eminent form of creation. This process of adaptation and standardization, such as in the automobile industry, can lead to complex systems that become incomprehensible, and finding simplified solutions becomes harder. This highlights the power of adaptation and the negative effects of excessive standardization.

Overcoming Constraints

The book discusses the challenges of engineering solutions in the face of constraints, using examples of the Ganges River and the Olympics. In both situations, negative constraints like religious practices, physical space, and time limit the available options. Positive constraints offer new opportunities for creative solutions. The author argues that by denormalizing the problem and designing a perfect system without limits, engineers can then introduce constraints and concessions to achieve a feasible solution. The book highlights the importance of considering all aspects of a problem, including both the cause and effect of any influences. Finally, the author emphasizes the responsibility of citizens in high-performance cultures to engineer useful choices.

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