How do I think like an engineer

Analytical thinking, systematic thinking

No question about it, an engineer must be able to think analytically and systematically. This is probably one of the basic qualities that an engineer simply has to bring with him. This characteristic is not only important in practical professional life, but already during studies. Without in-depth analytical skills, subjects with a high mathematical and statistical component, e.g. numerical mathematics, queuing theory, simulation methods, function theory, stochastics, higher finite elements, etc. are unlikely to be manageable. In exams and exams, tasks are to be solved that have practical relevance, e.g. the creation of P&ID flow diagrams for a process engineering system, the development of an impact plan for a technical machine, the representation of a machine in an object model, the establishment of a differential equation for a transmission system . Likewise, there are seldom jobs for engineers where you can make ends meet without in-depth analytical and systematic thinking and understanding.


general description

In every professional field there are a number of analyzes that have to be carried out, e.g. risk analyzes in product management, value analyzes in purchasing, damage analyzes in quality management, analyzes of manufacturing processes, analysis of reports from technical controlling, competition analyzes in sales, strength and fatigue analyzes in trials, Feasibility studies in construction.

The analytical engineer must have the motivation to want to get to the bottom of things. The attention to detail is just as important as well-founded specialist knowledge, a clear order of thoughts, a coherent and logical (systematic) approach using appropriate methods and tools. As a rule, it is a matter of correctly delimiting a certain problem area, structuring it into elements and examining the latter in detail. In this way you can determine the characteristics of the elements, get to know their functions and modes of action and ultimately see through the entire interaction of the system and its behavior towards the environment. Skills such as being able to differentiate between the essential and the insignificant, a sense of relationships, dependencies and causalities, targeted experimentation, recognizing general patterns and transferring the knowledge into mathematical models are also skills that characterize the analytical engineer.

The detailed analysis work is usually the basis for decisions regarding innovations, optimizations and modifications. It is the basis for subsequent conceptual activities, e.g. design of plant layouts, new product developments, modification of system concepts, etc.

theory and practice

Theory seldom looks like practice and practice like theory. Books, seminars, case studies on key qualifications cannot always fully take into account all practical problems on a topic and all the special boundary conditions of the individual workplace. Explanations from seminars and books therefore hardly ever apply in pure form to practice.

When applying what has been learned in the workplace, hurdles and barriers quickly arise. If you still want to apply the new knowledge, more or less imagination is required. Perhaps the pure culture has to be abandoned and practical modifications, e.g. of methods and instruments, have to be created. It is often enough to filter out the few points from books and seminars and apply them that are most likely to help in practice.

The above knowledge should not be overlooked when it comes to the skills for the individual key qualifications. Certainly the abilities presented in a comprehensive manner cannot be fully incorporated into the application process. However, the study of the specializations should lead to a higher sensitivity for the qualification. After that, everyone has to decide for themselves which points could be important for the employer being advertised, which of them they would like to address and whether they should do this in the written application or in the interview.

In addition, many terms can only be sketched out and not explained in detail. Here you have to look up it in the literature. References to literature can also be found in the following explanations.


The job offer usually focuses on the description of the tasks and the professional requirements of the applicant. Requirements that concern more the personality are usually presented in a catalog of contiguous terms in the lower part of the display. The terms analytical and systematic thinking or analytical skills and systematic work are mentioned directly or, in rare cases, similar terms are chosen that aim in the same direction:

Logical thinking, structured thinking / working, methodical working, ability to combine, networked thinking, holistic thinking, etc.

Key qualification

Focus 1

Analytical thinking

  • Being able to clearly outline and determine the object of the analysis and the will to get to the bottom of it, to make it transparent
  • Recognize which level of detail / abstraction is necessary for the research, research carefully and differentiate sensibly
  • Being able to differentiate between the essential and the insignificant, sense of order, overview, connections, causality, methodology
  • Identify and classify individual elements / components including interfaces and determine their characteristics
  • Determine functions, objects, information flows, framework conditions (technical, personal, legal, economic, etc.)
  • Regulations and patterns, cause-effect relationships (if-then ...), dependencies, recognizing / penetrating modes of operation
  • Collect information on the object of investigation and evaluate it using modern data analysis methods
  • Presentation and explanation of the findings of the analysis using verbal, graphic, mathematical and statistical models
  • On the basis of analysis results, conclusions, prognoses, recommendations for decisions are made, and models can be developed if necessary
  • Comparison of target and actual states in order to derive problems, weak points, uncertainties, opportunities, dangers, etc. from them
  • Mastering methods of deduction and induction: Coming from general to concrete statements and vice versa
  • Consistent application of engineering knowledge such as natural laws, material properties, their mutual relationships, etc.

Focus 2

Thinking in systems

  • Complex (technical) systems can be viewed as a collection of interacting objects (elements).
  • First, the static system structure is determined, whereby the components with the essential functions are the focus (abstraction and concentration!).
  • It may be necessary to look at the system and its components on various levels of abstraction and thus analyze it down to the smallest detail.
  • The static system structure also includes the description of the elements, their attributes, actions and the relationships between the elements.
  • The processes in the systems are usually described with the help of various methods, e.g. graphical object-oriented methods.
  • In the object-oriented analysis, structure (class diagram), behavior (state diagram), interactions (sequence diagram) are mapped.
  • Thinking in cybernetic models (reference variable, manipulated variable, controlled system, controlled variable, disturbance variable) helps to recognize systems.
  • Once the system structure is in place, the dynamic behavior of the system is explored and presented based on appropriate assumptions.
  • The possible states of the elements / subsystems, the sequence of the actions and the circumstances that lead to the action are described.
  • The development of mathematical models is used to derive what happens when individual adjustment screws are turned.
  • Determining system-oriented options for action: How can the system be intervened? How can it be influenced?
  • Analysis of disturbance variables that led to an unplanned process flow
  • Recognition of direct and indirect effects of the system behavior on the environment (after-effects, late effects, feedback effects, etc.)
  • Consideration of the time factor when developing solutions (dynamically oriented thinking)

Focus 3

Methods of mathematics, statistics, structuring

  • Areas of application for engineers require differentiated mathematical talent. In the minimum case, data has to be read and interpreted, in the more demanding case the data has to be generated by the user.
  • Below are examples of more general methods that can be used in practice in the application process in order to underpin analytical traits.
  • Descriptive statistics: data acquisition, feature types, frequencies, histograms, empirical distributions, measures such as mean, variance, standard deviation
  • Stochastics: Probability calculation, recognition and assessment of random events, random events, random samples and distributions, stochastic models / processes
  • Regression: Parametric / non-parametric, linear and non-linear regression, correlation, time series analysis and predictions, methods of model selection
  • Estimating / testing: parameter estimation, hypothesis tests, analysis of variance, test planning, cluster analysis, principal component and factor analysis, neural networks
  • Mathematics: combinatorics, logic, functions, integral and differential calculus, queues, modeling and simulation, finite elements, graph theory, operations research
  • Use of computers: Application of mathematical and statistical packages such as SPSS, SAS, SCA, programming and use of database systems, data mining suites, programming in mathematically oriented programming languages
  • Today it is chic to speak of "date mining": It is understood to mean the selection and application of the appropriate data analysis method, from neural networks to rule-based systems and decision trees to classic statistics and visualization.
  • Structuring methods: mind mapping, structured analysis, functional analysis, metaplan technology, tree diagrams, structure plans, network plans, etc.

Focus 4

Rational decision-making

  • In extreme cases, decisions can be made purely intuitively (gut feeling) or very rationally.
  • In the case of more rational decisions, information is systematically collected and analyzed in preparation.
  • The analyzes serve to prevent wrong decisions and limit risks.
  • Decision criteria are found, restrictions and framework conditions are explored, decisions and their consequences are shown.
  • There are various analysis tools for management. It is about recognizing and evaluating (prioritizing) fields of action and decision alternatives.
  • Instruments for the collection of decision-making fields are e.g .: statistical methods, GAP analysis, profile analysis, SWOT analysis, Pareto analysis, ABC analysis, analysis of critical success factors
  • Instruments for evaluating alternative decisions are e.g. benefit analysis, cost-benefit calculations, break-even analysis, risk / opportunity analysis, simulation, what-if analysis
  • In management, analytical skills are a prerequisite for realistic participation in budgeting and controlling.
  • Once the budget is in place, the targeted and achieved target values ​​are compared in subsequent periods and deviations are analyzed.
  • The causes of the deviations are analyzed and corrective measures (countermeasures) are then developed.

Focus 5

Report on analytical and systematic thinking

  • According to the motto “Do good and talk about it”, examples should be given in the application and interview that demonstrate analytical and systematic thinking.
  • Below are a few examples from various professional fields. They can be sketched out in the application and deepened in the interview.
  • Purchasing: procurement market analysis, supplier evaluation, value analysis workshops, purchase price analysis, benchmarking
  • Research and development: Analysis of existing solutions, evaluating tests, design / calculation / optimization of concepts, life cycle analyzes, modeling, simulation
  • Construction: Development / optimization of constructions, computational design / analysis / simulation and their evaluation, creation of parts lists, evaluation of constructive improvements
  • Logistics: Analysis of material flow structures, optimization of supply chains, controlling of stocks / throughput times, etc., analysis of the time behavior of complex logistics systems
  • Production: Loss, failure and cost analyzes to increase profitability, execution of work flow and time studies, evaluation and analysis of work organization and workplaces
  • Product management: Systematic research and analysis of market / environment information, evaluation of market opportunities / customer requirements / product ideas, determination of target markets, testing of the technical feasibility of product ideas
  • Quality: Analysis / evaluation of product quality such as abnormalities, errors, etc., controlling of corrective measures, evaluation of quality audits / tests for products, materials, processes, etc., damage assessment, analysis of quality indicators
  • Occupational safety: Determination of potential for improvement, preparation of safety / risk analyzes, development of safety concepts
  • Sales: recording of customer needs, preparation of calculations / comparative calculations / offers / forecasts etc., identification of new markets / product segments / target groups, analysis of market potentials

Proof in the application process

Proof in the cover letter

Five to seven of the most important tasks and requirements from the job advertisement should be addressed and dealt with in the cover letter.
First of all, it is a matter of working through the technical requirements. Some advertisements only briefly describe the professional requirements. This leaves space in the cover letter to address personality requirements. Since these are mostly prayed down in a catalog of terms, it is initially difficult to decide which requirements should be addressed in which way in the cover letter.

Analytical and systematic thinking should be addressed in the cover letter if they are expressly required in the job advertisement or if they are to be emphasized in the context of an unsolicited application. In the cover letter, the engineer can briefly and exemplarily address why he covers the requirements. Here's an example:

“Since I am confronted with the issue of process stability on a daily basis, I am familiar with the diverse influences of the entire product development process on the end product. I achieved particular success in stabilizing the production process through the use of SPC (statistical process control) and in the systematic analysis of weak points in contact materials for handling hot glass. A high degree of analytical thinking, creativity and systematics are essential for these tasks. "

Proof in the curriculum vitae

There are various places in the curriculum vitae where qualifications for analytical and systematic thinking can be listed. That can happen at the study stations. Diploma theses, doctorates and internship assignments are usually associated with extensive analysis work. Here are a few examples: "Diploma thesis: Benefit analysis of vertical transport alternatives ...", "Dissertation in the field of transmission analysis", "Doctoral thesis on the subject of damage analysis", "Internships - benchmarking and process analysis in the USA".

In addition, five to seven key areas of activity should be documented for the individual career stations. This can also include those that require or reflect a portion of analytical and systematic thinking. A construction manager documents, for example, "Implementation of feasibility studies including risk analysis", an employee in technical marketing leads to "Customer Profitability Analysis", an engineer from technical purchasing calls the "establishment of a spend analysis system", the sales manager of an automotive supplier speaks more Modest by “researching and analyzing customer needs and product possibilities”, the production engineer mentions his recently completed work “Design for Assembly, Analysis and Design for Manufacturing Analysis”.

An additional point “methodological competence” - similar to the focus “IT” or “foreign languages” - could also be listed in the résumé. Here, among other things, the mastered and requested analysis methods could be mapped in the form of a catalog. Last but not least, seminars on analytical and systematic thinking can be listed under the focus on “further training”.

Evidence 3rd page

Some applicants add a “third page” to their résumé, mainly dealing with the questions: Who am I? What I want? What can I? Regardless of the sense or nonsense of such a page, engineers can address their qualifications with regard to analytical and systematic thinking here. This is particularly useful if such qualifications are asked for in the advertisement for the vacant position or if it can be assumed that they play a decisive role, which also applies to an unsolicited application.

The question “Who am I?” Usually lists personality traits. Terms can now be used for this purpose, which aim at analytical and systematic thinking and which appear familiar to the personnel from the advertisements in a similar way. Here are a few examples: “Rational Analyst”, “Systematic Thinker”, “Structured and Thorough Approach”.

Evidence in the documents

When it comes to application documents, some are spoiled for choice when it comes to attaching seminar, training and education certificates. Candidates should in any case enclose evidence of seminars, training courses, coaching sessions that demonstrate competencies in terms of analytical and systematic thinking. This applies at least if this key qualification is addressed and emphasized in the job advertisement. Certificates for method seminars should be carefully selected. If many seminars have been attended, only certificates should be attached to the application that demonstrate knowledge of currently valuable methods.

Proof in the qualification profile

In the qualification profile, the applicant presents a short biography in four or five focal points. Under individual focal points, statements can now follow that emphasize analytical and systematic thinking, similar to the stations in the résumé, e.g. "Analyzes in process, quality and environmental management "," Systematic analyzes in the field for damage assessment ". As part of the short biography, one line can be devoted to all personality traits. Here it is important to put together an interesting mix in which terms can be used that underpin analytical and systematic thinking. Here is an example of such a mix: "Methodical and thorough approach, an eye for details, reliable implementation of analysis results in concepts, convincing presentations."

Proof in the interview

The topic of analytical and systematic thinking is addressed more or less directly or indirectly in the interview, depending on the tendency of the job advertisement. Regardless of this, the engineer should address the topic himself if related properties were listed in the advertisement or if it is likely that they play a key role, such as in design, development, testing, etc. The engineer can also answer his questions and answers reflect a lot of related skills, qualifications and experience. Examples from professional practice, from internships, etc. are more helpful than theoretical treatises: “We first did a weak point analysis on defects in product quality. I took care of this, optimized the existing machines, made profitability calculations, whether it was worth building new machines… ”. In preparation for the interview, it is also advisable to create a list of all projects and tasks that have been completed so far and to list the analysis work and the methods used. It is then easier to bring the specific work experience into play in the interview or to return to the topic of analytical and systematic thinking via minor detours if you have other questions.

Proof in practice

A less analytical and systematic way of working will hardly be noticed in the first few days in the new job. Nevertheless, the analytical and systematic approach already begins in the probationary period when it comes to exploring the new working environment and familiarizing oneself with new tasks and projects. The less analytical and systematic the approach, the longer the induction takes and the more difficult it is for the candidate to bring his own knowledge to the new company quickly, appropriately and thus profitably.

The more analytical and systematic thinking is necessary for solving tasks, the more likely gaps or method deficits will be noticed in this regard. A construction project that has been approached the wrong way quickly becomes obvious and can cost a project engineer head and neck while the customer, who is incorrectly assessed by a sales manager in the context of a potential analysis, is unlikely to be noticed.


Technical / management career

Analytical and systematic thinking is arguably the most fundamental quality of engineers. The more the engineer moves in the classic areas of application such as research, trial / test, development, construction, the more analytical and systematic skills are required in order to be able to perform tasks well. But also in the other professional fields for engineers it is not possible without a good portion of analytical and systematic thinking. The above remarks, in particular with regard to the focus on key qualifications, hint at a whole range of different tasks that ultimately require a high level of analytical ability. Anyone who has weak points here is basically wrong in the engineering profession. Even with the ongoing demand for higher effectiveness and efficiency, analytical qualities play a major role when it comes to making processes, products, systems, machines, technologies, methods, materials, etc. more and more economical.

When it comes to management, engineers have an advantage over other professions. Rarely do engineers find pure gut decision-makers or visionaries with little down-to-earth contact and basic knowledge. The latter in particular have sufficiently proven in the past where analytically poorly prepared decisions lead and where a lot of burnt ground can be left behind. Project miscalculations of sometimes far more than 100% can hardly be explained only politically. The need for thorough work is often overlooked in management according to the motto: "It is important to do it, we have neither money nor time for extensive analysis!" In this respect, it can be said that executives with a strong engineering background are on the advance, including the higher floors by companies and subject areas that traditionally were covered in the past by other study disciplines.

Occupational field-specific importance

The occupational field-specific significance for the key qualification “analytical thinking, systematic thinking” can be derived from an evaluation of around 4,000 job advertisements that were placed on in 2012. The job advertisements searched for terms that directly target the respective key qualification. Accordingly, the following result was shown for the key qualification “Analytical thinking, systematic thinking”: Great importance

  • Assembly-oriented production / process engineering production
  • Research and Development
  • Technical management / management
  • Servicing, maintenance, commissioning
  • Quality, material and quality testing
  • Project management
  • construction
  • technical shopping
  • Logistics (production, sales, purchasing)
  • Product management

Moderate importance

  • Technical sales, technical marketing
  • Research and Teaching
  • Occupational safety, environmental protection, plant safety

Among the 11 evaluated key qualifications, the key qualification “Analytical thinking, systematic thinking” takes 11th place and thus occupies the last place in the ranking list. The key qualification “Analytical Thinking, Systematic Thinking” is primarily mentioned in job advertisements for engineering occupational fields where it is required in addition. Other personality traits play an equal, but usually stronger, role in the advertisements for these occupational fields. In engineering positions, where analytical and systematic thinking is the basic requirement for all work, the requirement for this key qualification seems so banal that it is rarely addressed in job advertisements. This is clearly demonstrated by the job advertisements in the field of research and teaching.

There were no separate evaluations for the occupational fields “Engineering in Plant Construction”, “Controlling / Calculation / Project Planning” and “Facility Management”. The occupational fields of "engineering in plant construction" and controlling / calculation / project planning "can best be brought on a par with the occupational field of" project management ", the occupational field of" facility management "with the occupational field of" maintenance, repair, commissioning ".

Further training opportunities

Seminars / training / coaching

General seminars on analytical and systematic thinking are as good as not offered. Most likely, there are still offers in the direction of networked thinking and systems thinking. Relevant analysis and systematisation tools are most often dealt with in function-oriented seminars in which an analytical and systematic approach plays a major role, e.g. seminars on the topics of occupational safety, quality management, process and project management. There are also seminars on individual methods, e.g. value analysis, mind mapping, FMEA and the like. In management seminars, the analytical approach is primarily addressed when it comes to topics such as planning and decision-making. If the engineer lacks basic knowledge in one or the other subject, he can also catch up on this at universities in specific events, e.g. to close the gap in the field of finite elements. Information on business analysis can be found in seminars on general business administration, but especially on controlling.


The literature on this topic is very diverse. There are no complete works that could even come close to covering the subject of analytical and systematic thinking for engineers in breadth and depth. However, here are some works that convey general rather than specific knowledge on individual dimensions of analytical and systematic thinking:

  • Hertlein, Margit, Mind-Mapping - The Creative Working Technique, Verlag Rowohlt
  • Kühlmeyer, Manfred, Statistical Evaluation Methods for Engineers, Springer-Verlag
  • Riedl, Rupert, Structures of Complexity, Springer-Verlag
  • Stahel, Werner, Statistical Data Analysis, Vieweg + Teubner