Get Rid of Your Print Handbooks!

Among the dusty tomes Dan Markovitz accused me of hoarding in my office, I found eleven handbooks. They occupy two linear feet of shelf space, and I have a few more in electronic form. The print books have indeed been accumulating dust because they are no longer where I look for information.

For theories, the first stop is Wikipedia; for details on using a software tool, StackOverflow; for changing headlight bulbs in my car, YouTube… The last time I opened a handbook was to check a claim that it covered a particular topic. It didn’t.

Why do engineers keep handbooks?

A handbook on an engineer’s bookshelf is a 20th-century symbol of professionalism, like degrees and certifications on the walls of a medical exam room. It’s a safety blanket. It defines the engineers as members of a community with a shared body of knowledge, and It reassures managers and customers.

According to Webster’s, a handbook is “conveniently carried as a ready reference.” In Industrial Engineering (IE), Maynard’s and Salvendy’s handbooks are both 2,500 pages and Badiru’s 1,500. Clearly, “conveniently carried” only applies to their electronic editions. In fact, the only IE handbook that would fit in a briefcase in print is the 149-page 1973 Toyota Handbook produced by Mark Warren.

The content of handbooks

As references, handbooks are not intended to be read cover-to-cover but to serve as lookup resources by topic, like concise, specialized encyclopedias. Their value depends on how complete, accurate, and current their content is.


The handbooks usually have one or two editors who select topics, and up to 200 contributors invited by the editors to write about each. While it seems a large group, they rarely have an answer to the reader’s specific questions.

Missing topics in Juran’s Quality Handbook

Even the latest edition of Juran’s Quality Handbook (2016) is short on the methods used by Toyota, Nissan, or Honda. Once a process is capable, the key to further quality improvement is rapid problem detection, achieved by reducing lead time and therefore WIP. “WIP,” however, is nowhere to be found in this handbook. Neither is Nissan’s Quick Response Quality Control (QRQC) method. There are a few references to mistake-proofing/poka-yoke but no details on what it is or discussion of its role in achieving <1 ppm defective in auto parts manufacturing.

Missing topics in Industrial Engineering Handbooks

A reader searching for specifics in the Industrial Engineering handbooks can easily find missing topics:

  • Chapter 19 of Salvendy’s handbook, about *Environmental Engineering: Regulation and Compliance*, is exclusively about *regulations* and about the *US*. It frames the issues of Environmental Engineering exclusively in terms of regulatory compliance — a cost of doing buinsess — as opposed to designing and operating factories that do not damage the environment — the real objective. Also, why focus on the US? What about Japan, Europe, or China?
  • A company may be using a Scanlon plan in its wage system, and an engineer who is hazy about what it is may want to look it up. Maynard’s handbook has one sentence about it on p. 5.152 but neither do Salvendy’s nor Badiru’s. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has an article about it.
  • None of the handbooks has more than one paragraph about SMED, the general method for reducing changeover times between products on a machine or production line. The best they do is give you references to other literature for details.
  • None covers Work Combination Charts, also known as *Standard Work* in the LEI Lexicon, *Standard Operations Routine Sheets* in Monden’s Toyota Production System and in the JMA’s KANBAN-Just-In-Time at Toyota, and *Standard Operations Combination Chart* in John Bicheno’s Lean Toolbox,…
  • Work Combination Charts a powerful tool for combining tasks into jobs without making people wait for machines or machines wait for people. It has the look and feel of classical industrial engineering and many assume it is. Yet none of the handbooks discuss it.


Accuracy is not a concern on technical points settled for ~200 years, like bending stresses in beams in Dubbel’s Handbook of Mechanical Engineering. You expect the formulas to map to physical reality. It is a different story with social sciences, where you can’t easily validate assertions about human behavior.

For example, you should take statements that present the “Hawthorne effect” as established science with a grain of salt, as based on research methods that have been exposed as less than rigorous (See Manufacturing Knowledge: A History of the Hawthorne Experiments).

While most handbooks are intended as references for practitioners, some, like Pyzdek and Keller’s Handbook for Quality Management, are targeted at candidates for certification by professional societies. It changes the focus from actionable information to the orthodoxy that will ensure a passing grade on an exam. In such a context, accuracy is conformance with the orthodoxy, not reality.


You don’t hit handbooks for the latest developments but for the consensus body of knowledge at the time of publication. How often you need a new edition depends on how dynamic the field is.

Handbook of Mechanical Engineering (1994)

My 1994 Mechanical Engineering Handbook has valid information about strength of materials but it does not cover friction stir welding, which was invented in 1991, and its recommendation of “smart” numbering systems is obsolete. My entire 2003 RFID Handbook is obsolete. Even the latest edition, from 2010, may be long in the tooth.

Industrial Engineering Handbooks (2001 to 2013)

IE is a mixed bag. In this field, the handbooks are where new approaches go once they have run their course, which is usually as follows:

  1. Faced with a challenge in producing goods or delivering services, engineers develop a point solution.
  2. Their peers and managers generalize it, propagate it within the company, and integrate it into the *company production system* or *company way*. At this point it is proprietary and a trade secret.
  3. The secret leaks out, through suppliers, employees, or former employees. Sometimes management decides to publicize it in some fashion for public relations.
  4. Consultants name the approach, package it, and promote it, first to competitors and then to other industries.
  5. As more and more companies implement it, more consultants leverage its popularity by putting its name on whatever services they offer.
  6. As they water it down and attempt to apply it to more and more unrelated situations, failure cases proliferate. This blemishes the name and eventually makes it stale.
  7. The industrial engineering profession folds the legacy of the approach into its body of knowledge, in handbooks and in courses of study that provide certifications through academia or professional societies.

Over the past century, Scientific Management, Mass Production, TWI, SPC, TQC/TQM, Six Sigma, Group Technology, and Lean have all gone through this cycle. As discussed earlier in this blog, these approaches are not comparable in scope, range of applicability, or effectiveness. Sometimes they are complementary and sometimes contradictory. Nonetheless, the profession, the media, and even academia have treated them as if they were all additional layers of knowledge.

The most often cited IE handbooks are Maynard’s and Salvendy’s, both last updated in 2001. They don’t cover any development from the last 19 years. The most recent IE handbook is Badiru’s, whose 2nd edition came out in 2013.

The handbooks and systems thinking

A different specialist covers each topic in a stand-alone chapter. IE handbooks occasionally mention systems engineering. It is even in the title of Badiru’s but the structure of the books is antinomic to systems thinking.

For example, when you treat manufacturing cells and human resource management as separate topics, you obscure their mutual dependencies. As a system cellular manufacturing is not just about equipment, flows of materials, and movements of people. It includes human resources practices to certify operators for multiple skills, reward their versatility, and help them plan careers. The last point is key to smoothing the operators’ transition into better jobs as productivity increases.

You find a systems perspective in books that focus on specific professional challenges. This includes setting up and operating an assembly line, a machining or fabrication shop, or the logistics of supporting either. These books have one or two authors, not 180.  They describe a consistent approach from start to finish. They pull in tools and techniques as needed in pursuit of the overall goal. This philosophy is behind Lean Assembly, Working with Machines, and Lean Logistics.

Library donations

Let’s face it! My 11 handbooks belong on library shelves, not in my private office.

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