In the summer of 1928 a young medical researcher left his London lab to go on holiday. He was studying the staphylococci bacilli that are responsible for a number of nasty infections including septicemia. As a part of his research he cultivated the bacteria in cultures grown in Petri dishes.
As he left for vacation he, for whatever reason, did not place his cultures into sealed incubators but left them out on the exposed lab counters. In order to promote air circulation as an antidote to the summer heat the researcher routinely kept his lab door open. Nearby was a stairwell that led down to the floor below where a mycology lab was cultivating molds for study.
Like the lab upstairs the mycology research was done in the open without any way of isolating the molds or the spores they produced.
With the two labs open to each other over the vacation period the spores from the mycologist’s molds rode the air currents out of the lab, up the stairwell and into the Petri dishes of the medical researcher. (This was promoted by a rapidly passing, unseasonable cold snap that gave way to the return of summer heat and, in the process, exacerbated the upward drifting air currents.)
The medical researcher returned to find his cultures contaminated. As he began the process of discarding them he noticed that the contaminant had caused discoloration patterns in his cultures. He recognized this as the product of a process called lysis or the destruction of staphylococcus cells. The unknown contaminant was literally breaking down the bacteria.
At this point the researcher, whose name was Alexander Fleming, had no way of knowing the contaminant was the spores from the penicillin mold being grown in a downstairs lab. Only further study would tell him that. What he recognized was the fact that whatever had contaminated his dishes was killing the dangerous agent of infection he was studying.
It was not the serendipitously bad lab processes that led to this discovery. The failure to isolate the bacteria cultures, the failure to contain the mold spores, the stuffy labs that required open doors, the weather that pushed around the air currents- all these set up the situation but the critical contribution came from Fleming.
It was Fleming’s recognition of the deleterious effect of the contaminant on the bacteria that turned a set of circumstances into a huge advance in the treatment of infectious diseases. Without Fleming’s observation and conclusions, the net result would have amounted to a bunch of discarded lab glass. It was Fleming himself that made the difference. (He would go on to share the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine for this observation and his contribution to the work that grew out of it.)
The same is true for the world of system solutions. In the end it is the engineer that makes the difference. While we should use best practices, smart approaches and effective tools to position our engineers for success, it is the engineers guiding the designs that will make the progress we seek.
The sloppy lab practices that led to the contamination turned out to be fortuitous. But the point here is certainly not that scientific investigation should be left to chance. All good problem solvers know to predispose their efforts to success through sound practices and good tools. In Fleming’s case the favor of chance simply allows his example to be seen more clearly in contrast to the circumstances.
Fleming’s example is instructive because his insight and awareness turned around a sloppy set of chance-driven circumstances. That contrast brings his role into focus. But the same is true for the engineer using sound best-practices in a disciplined way. It is always the engineer who makes the difference – who finds the answer – who solves the problem.