If it were not for the electronic gadgets we have available today, we couldn’t do what we do for a living. Only a few people would live on sailboats, what I do when not making a living helping people around the world with quality, product performance and reliability problems.

We need to communicate with people around the world as readily as we can with the folks next door to do what we do. This has only been possible for a few years, even though we accept it as normal today. I remember being astounded when sending my first fax by using the telephone, which took several minutes per page. Before that we had to use snail mail for documents, and expensive international phone calls for talking, always through AT&T. David lives in England, Tobias in Germany. The biggest impediment to communicating with one another now is that someone might be in bed. In 2015, we worked for clients in a dozen or so places in the United States, Germany, Italy, China, Mexico, and a few other places as well. When a client contacts us, we go. When they want to communicate, we need to be available.

Our seminars and slides are stored in Dropbox. We now scan documents with Scanner Pro on I-pads, and use GoodReader as a filing system. Everything is backed up in a cloud, and somehow, my Mac, IPad and IPhone all stay synched.

I am currently in Panama. I just sailed from Red Frog in Western Panama to Colon, near the canal, but I won’t stay long. I have to decide if I am going to sail to Trinidad in the Eastern Caribbean, leaving before the Christmas winds, or through the canal, northwest to Costa Rica, then to Tahiti in January or February. And I will still manage to get my work done at The New Science of Fixing Things.

I admit I am a far more dependent on technology than I should be. I principally use electronic charts. Years ago, I learned how to use a sextant, but forgot, a wonderful tool replaced by a GPS and a chart plotter. I took pride in surprising the instructor as we sailed from Bermuda to Virginia, consistently able to find our position within a few hundred yards, and always within 2nm, while others were off by far more. Now I could do as well with a sextant as a chart and a dart.

I learned coastal navigation with a hand-bearing compass and paper charts. I used to mark my position when anchored with that same compass, check it and plot it with a pencil every 15 minutes until I was sure the anchor was set. Now I toss my big Rocna anchor off the bow, set the scale on the chart plotter so I can watch as the boat traces a path and moves in 6-foot increments. I set an alarm to go off if the boat moves more than .1nm and the GPS does the work. The compass, and a spare are behind me as I write this at the navigation station on my boat, Ariadne. I would be embarrassed to admit how long it has been since I used them.

Even with my dependency on electronics, I try to avoid the addiction of electronic gadgets we depend upon. I rarely carry a cell phone. I don’t want to be in touch all the time. Frankly, I am not that important, and what you want to talk to me about can wait. I don’t want a picture of what you ate this morning and I am not much interested in the details of your personal life in an instant message or Facebook. I don’t want to walk down the street texting. I don’t want to chat with you. If I am in conversation, I want to engage, to look you in the eyes. I won’t talk to you if you delude yourself into thinking you are multi-tasking, texting while talking, which means doing multiple things poorly.

Gadgets make it harder and harder, but more important to find peace. Peace comes from the comfort I get from simple things, from walking in the jungle near Bocas Del Toro listening to the parrots, or anchoring in Bluefield, a place with no Wi-Fi or phone service, where I hiked and swam under a waterfall a few days ago and bought a few lobsters from the Indians as they paddle alongside in their kayukas. It means turning the phone off when I write.

I find peace by taking the time to see things, which means to spend uninterrupted time when things matter, things that I enjoy seeing, or things that are important to seeSeeingdoes not mean looking.

Looking means taking a photograph with my phone of a parking place at Logan Airport, so I won’t loose the car. I don’t care to see a parking place, only to look then move on. (I don’t own a car now, but I have a nice dinghy with a 15HP Yamaha.)

I can often see what I need to see with a pencil and paper and a bit of uninterrupted peace. A pencil and paper are ancient devices with a proper place in today’s world of engineering. The best engineers I know keep notebooks. All of them can make a sketch, without exception. Can you? Do you know when to draw a sketch? Do you know when to take the time to draw? Do you know how powerful a sketch can be? Do you know how to make it powerful?

The picture below is a sketch of a cutlass bearing and the zinc on the prop shaft I drew into my boats logbook.

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Shaft Zinc and Cutlass Bearing

I could have looked and taken a photo, but I chose to draw it and see. Drawing takes a bit of time. I like to draw because it helps me to see. I like the peacefulness it brings to me (when the gadgets are off) and I like knowing that I am learning what I need to learn. A drawing has only what I want to see. A photo has too much information, too much to look at, and not just what I choose to see. A photograph doesn’t come with labels or notes on the important parts.

“But I can’t draw,” we often hear.

“Then you cannot see,” I will respond. If you cannot see, then you cannot understand. If you cannot understand, then you cannot fix anything. The good news is, that drawing a cartoon is a powerful and simple way to start any project. And, you can draw. Get to it.

Just draw what you see. With a bit of practice you will get better. A drawing can be crude. It might be done on the whiteboard. I think it’s more difficult on a whiteboard, because you are usually trying to draw while others are talking at you, but sometimes, you have to. What matters is that you took the time to see, not just to look. A cartoon shows that you are taking the time to learn.

Whiteboard Work.  It has mine and David’s handwriting

David drew the following cartoons while working on a difficult project in Germany. It took some time, but he needed dedicate the time to the drawing, to really think through the function and to get it right.

From David’s Notebook
Also from David’s Notebook
One from my notebook

Solving engineering and technical problems requires a process of some sort. The best process is not one that is made up with the idea of using a bunch of tools, but one that is developed over time…years…and then written down by the experts who developed it, and used it.

For years, after we solved tough problems at The New Science of Fixing Things, people asked, “How did you guys learn to do that so fast and with such insight?”

I shrugged, and said, “We got old,” meaning we have been doing it for years. One person told me, “You have said that before and it is not helpful. You need to take the time to figure out what you guys do and how you do it then teach it. What you have is valuable and needs to be captured.” He was right.

We think we have captured it, and now teach what we do better than we ever have, based on the 8C process below.

8C Process From d-TACTICS Workbook


What we discovered as we looked at our notebooks is that every project started with a sketch, a cartoon, the first step in d-TACTICS for Matryoshka Characterization with small multiples, and z-STRATEGIES, energy concepts for machine performance and reliability

A proper cartoon is an effective learning tool. It provides the opportunity to begin to see not just to look. It is the beginning of gaining insight into how stuff really works. Insight and understanding is often a pleasant surprise.

For those who want to do what we do, start with a cartoon. We will be happy to teach you the rest as well.

“The growth and transformation that has occurred in our Technical Problem Solving group over the last 18 months just simply blows me away! This transformation, I owe a largely to your, David, and now Tobias’s teachings.  Clearly you got it right and I’m certain TNSFT will leave a lasting legacy well beyond our years.  My only regret is that I was not able to successfully fight the head winds here to begin this journey 8 years ago when I wanted. I can only imagine what the organization would be doing right now.  I really look forward to our growing partnership as we move forward together in the future.  Thanks again for all of your help!”

You are welcome, my friend. Thanks for the chance to work with you.