Going back to school (as a TA)

Yesterday, I went to McMaster University to join Design Innovation class of the Engineering Design program as a volunteer TA.  As I wrote in a previous post, I was a TA in Design Thinking course last year.  Like Design Thinking course, Design Innovation is a biweekly Saturday course, and since I bought a car, now I go back to school to help teaching.  I like teaching, and it’s worth driving two hours.  Actually I joined the class from the beginning of this term, but I skipped two classes in a raw because I was asked to work on Saturday with Japanese workaholics.  It’s good to “take a day off” on Saturday.

Those two courses are led by a mechanical engineering professor and an industrial design professor.  To make a long story short, I understand that the aim of those courses is to make engineers designers.  Since I have both engineering and design backgrounds, let me assume I am a perfect match.  At the beginning of Design Thinking course, most of the students are pure engineers; once they came up with an idea, they stuck to it and tried to make it better without thinking of alternatives.  Now I can tell they are becoming familiar with design approach where they explore design ideas to find better solutions.  But changing habits is not easy.  When they try to generate different ideas, some of them seem to focus on technologies and often forget design implications such as human factors.  When I asked “what are design challenges in your project?” some of them could not answer.  But if they truly understand design approach and use their engineering expertise, I’m sure they can be “strong” engineering designers.

I like teaching, and now I want to be a good teacher; I want to show my design approach as a professional product designer.  But I still don’t know when it happens.  My journey will go on.

February 24, 2013Permalink

Engineers are also people, right!?

This is a typical conversation I hear at my workplace.

Japanese engineer: Please install the pipes here, not there.
Canadian pipe fitter: It’s better to install them there because it’s easier to walk here.
Japanese engineer: No, it doesn’t have to be. Only maintenance personnel walk here.

I can derive two points from this conversation.  First, although Japan is known for its advanced consumer products, maintenance personnel (engineers and technicians) are not considered to be “users”; only those product consumers are recognized as users. Second, technology-oriented engineers do not consider human factors.  Probably they focus on “efficiency”; in this case, using less pipe, thus shorter route with less material, is more efficient.  But, is it really?  No.  Uncomfortable work environment easily causes human errors.  It is inefficient.  Those engineers are not trained to recognize maintenance personnel as users of the facility and to design user-friendly work environment.

I have found another difference between Canadians and Japanese in this context.  Some machines to be maintained are placed near the floor.  This is because Japanese people often crouch to work, which is very uncomfortable for many Canadians.  Many Japanese simply do not know this difference.  In one case, I explained this to a Japanese engineer and Canadian pipe fitters, and advised to install some machines at a little below chest height.  Now those machines are placed as I advised, but only a few people know it.  No matter how many people know it, I’m glad to see them installed from designer’s view point in the engineer’s world.

February 18, 2013Permalink

Professionalism, continued

In a previous post, I wrote about professionalism.  In a different previous post, I said I am a professional Japanese-English technical interpreter.  Should I fulfill my role?  Yes, I should.  What is my role?  That is the question.  As I wrote in another previous post, I personally think that my role is to fill the cultural gap between Canadians and Japanese, which is not officially expected.  For now, I dare not to count this.

The term “interpret” have some meanings.  According to Longman (1995), one of the meanings, which my client seems to expect me to do, is “to change words spoken in one language into another” [1].  But my Canadian colleagues expect me to do more.  I’m the only one who talk with everyone in the current workplace, and some Canadians expect me to coordinate some small works that a Japanese supervisor does not take care of.  I enjoy doing it, in fact, and those Canadians appreciate it.  In this way, things go smoothly, but some Japanese coworkers do not like it; they stick to conventional Japanese way of working though it is inefficient and takes longer time unnecessarily. Am I a good professional technical interpreter?  No.  My client expects me to work like an interpreter machine.  I should not work like a coordinator.

Of course, “interpret” has another, primary meaning, which is “to believe that someone’s action or behavior or an event as having a particular meaning” [1].  As I wrote in a previous post, Japanese conversation is like coding and decoding.  I often decode what Japanese coworkers say and then interpret it to English.  Canadians appreciate it, but those Japanese even don’t know that I do it.  Without it, those Canadians should have been confused.  Apparently, I am not a good professional technical interpreter, but I am happy to make things go smoothly.  This is how I contribute for the current workplace.

[1] Longman Group Ltd, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 1995. 

February 16, 2013Permalink

Attitude barrier

Technically speaking, I am a professional Japanese-English translator/interpreter.  But English is still difficult for me though I have used English for more than 10 years.  Having said that, what troubles me when I interpret between Canadians and Japanese is not language but attitude.  It’s attitude barrier.

I was born and raised in Japan, but since when I was a little kid, I’ve had difficulties in communicating with typical Japanese.  When they tell something to other people, they hide important points between the lines.  Canadians do it in some degree, but typical Japanese do it in much higher degree.  So, when they listen to other people, they always try to read between the lines.  It’s like coding and decoding.  For some reasons, I cannot code and decode in their way.  When I speak frankly, they assume I imply something. If I say, “no, I’m not implying anything”, they assume I imply something by saying it.  As I wrote in a previous post, in Japan, it is important to show your efforts.  When someone asks other people to do something that they cannot afford to do, they do not say “I cannot do it” but make tremendous efforts to do it, which makes other people feel bad. So, they try to avoid asking other people to do something whether it is demanding for them or not.  If someone says “I can do it”, typical Japanese assume the person implies that he/she cannot afford to do it but will make tremendous efforts to do it because he/she was asked to do so.  If they want someone to do something, they do not tell it to the person but expect him/her to read their mind.  If the person do not do it, they complain about the person behind his/her back.  All those things happen in the current work place, and it often causes problems between Canadians and Japanese.  I’ve tried to explain it to my Japanese coworkers, but they never understand it.

A good thing is that now my Canadian colleagues understand me.  When I lived in Japan and had problems caused by the attitude barrier, those Japanese told me “you are wrong”.  Now I know I was not wrong.

February 8, 2013Permalink

Finally they experienced Canada, but…

Last Saturday, finally, I managed to bring workaholic Japanese coworkers to Niagara Falls.  Many of them were impressed and spent a long time on watching the falls near by.  It was too cold for some others and they spent more time in a souvenir shop, which is OK.  But our experience was ruined by an extreme workaholic; everyone was rushed into going home by him.  Why?  Because he was going to work on the following Sunday and forced some others to work with him.  Yesterday, our Canadian contractors invited us to snow tubing.  The extremist joined us because he thought it was his “duty”.  After snow tubing, the Canadians invited us to drink, but, again, the extremist tried to force other Japanese to refuse.  But those Canadians knew he would do it, and managed to bring everyone to a bar.  Great job!

Probably there are different types of workaholics.  Some of them are afraid of losing their job and work hard to remain in the organization.  Some others cannot find any (other) joy and working is the only thing they can spend time on.  Some others feel they are always forced to work by something without knowing what “something” is.  I assume that the extremist is a combination of the latter two cases, but not really sure.  There must be another type of workaholics; they simply “love” their job.  I even want to find a job that I would love so much that I could be a workaholic.

Some of the “victims” of the extremist do not have much time in Canada.  I hope I will have some chances to secretly let them experience Canadian customs.  Someday, they will call me “Schindlaer”.

February 5, 2013Permalink


In Japan, showing effort is often more important than working effectively.  In Japan (and probably in many other countries), many engineers like doing whatever technical things that they like rather than contributing as a team member.  Those attitudes often results in doing innovative work, but it is rare.  And now it puts me in a difficult situation in the current job.  Some Japanese engineers came to my work place.  They are supposed to supervise Canadian workers, and I am supposed to translate what they say to give instructions to Canadian workers.  But some of those Japanese geeks prefer working by themselves to sweat and cannot give instructions to Canadian workers.  First of all, working without work permit is against the law; they landed in Canada as supervisors. Second of all, they do not fulfill their duty at all; they do not supervise Canadian workers and do not let me do my duty.  This irritates me a lot.

They may be good engineers.  But are they good professionals?  No.  Good professionals should understand their role and fulfill their duty.

If I understand correctly, this is one of the biggest differences between product engineer and product designer.  Correct me if I’m wrong; designers should have a holistic view point and work as leaders in a development team, while engineers focus on technical details and work by themselves.  This is what I am aiming at.  Form does not follow function.  Engineering follows design.

February 1, 2013Permalink