The Common Sense Check


In the first two years of any engineering degree you generally take all of the same classes as any other student at any other engineering school in the country. You take your Physics, your Chemistry, your Calculus and Differential Equations, and your Statics and Dynamics.

Engineering Dynamics is generally considered one of the hardest classes at RPI. The professor was not my favorite professor. The material was difficult and explained poorly. I know a lot of people who went to the local community college to take the class over the summer. Despite the extra expense, they found it worth it to avoid having to take the class over and over again just to pass. I struggled to get a B (on a curve).

The tests took upwards of two hours and generally consisted of 3 or 4 really large problems. Frustrated with our poor test scores (I think the class average was like a 30/100), the professor looked at us and told us that we should at least be applying the “common sense check” to every answer. If the answer didn’t make sense, we shouldn’t turn it in.

For example, if we were re-constructing a high speed freeway auto accident and told to find the speed of the two cars, common sense would dictate that one car probably wasn’t driving .007 MPH. Nor was it driving 4,000 MPH. Neither of those answers make any sense whatsoever. We all know that two fast cars would be driving somewhere between 50 MPH and 150 MPH. A 10 year old would tell you that. But people would put those crazy answers down anyway.

This has always stuck with me. Every time I solve a problem, I think “does this answer make sense?”

It really applies to anything.

Today I was putting together some international shipping data for an upcoming meeting. I needed to figure out exactly how many international sales we’ve had over a few different time periods, what services we used, and what percentage of total sales each service was during each time frame. This involved quite a few custom database queries that I could easily mess up with a typo here or there. Then I needed to gather future potential shipping quotes from the USPS API, the FedEx API, and from some proposed new FedEx rate tables. Again, lots of potential for typos.

After every single step I made sure that the answer made sense before moving on to the next. I looked at previous numbers. I cross-checked with Google Analytics to make sure I was in the same ballpark. I found a few real orders in our database and made sure that my rates sent to the country were about right. I took the time to make sure that the data I’m about to present makes sense. It takes a few extra seconds of work to avoid a potential catastrophe.

It’s a really simple concept, an overtly obvious one, yet one that many people seemingly gloss over. You’d be shocked at how many times people just throw together a spreadsheet and blindly trust the numbers that Excel spits out without ever thinking about how the numbers should come out. I saw it all through college, I saw it in the corporate world, and I see it with the companies we deal with.

8 comments on The Common Sense Check

  1. TIm says:

    Good post Adam, it may seem like such an obvious thing, but it is very easy to get caught up with something and forget that we live in the real world.

  2. Neville says:

    I put:

    Every time I solve a problem, I think “does this answer make sense?”
    -Adam McFarland

    …into my quote book!

  3. Rob says:

    This applies to so much – I wish our suppliers would take heed, then we’d stop having issues like products manufacturerd with text upside-down (seriously, WTF?), date-critical products shipping outside of the estimates scope and useful lifespan of the product and many other issues besides…

  4. Greg says:

    My team’s unofficial motto is “Never Assume, Always Check” to ensure we don’t make these kinds of stupid mistakes when delivering our results to 1,000s of people throughout the country.

    These common sense mistakes are usually functions of very minor oversights, but they can kill your credibility with something you spent much much more time behind the scenes getting it right.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Well said Greg. Let me know when you’ll be in town for the holidays. Hopefully we can get together for a beer.

  5. […] So we decided to start over.  Today we unveiled our new system, one that should be a marked improvement.  Throughout the entire process everyone was involved, particularly our employees who actually do the pulling.  I made sure to run everything by the guys in the warehouse at each step of the way to make sure it passed the common sense check. […]

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