Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name



Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering

First Advisor

Ratna B. Chinnam


This dissertation research explores processes by which engineering problem solving (EPS) results in sustained organizational learning. Approaching from a constructionist perspective, the study empirically examines the knowledge creation dynamics instigated by product-related problems using a mixed methods research approach. The research has identified the Japanese concept of ba, defined in this study as "shared experiential space," as a key construct that explains the phenomena of interest. A new framework that the study has developed, which interprets EPS as an epistemic journey to attain system-wide improvements, is highly complementary to the traditional structured routine based approaches to engineering operations and management.

Operational sustainability is an important issue for every enterprise's survival, to which engineering contributes by managing product and customer requirements. Effective product management is made possible by seamless feedback of lessons learned, which are generated by problem solving. While the literature offers ample evidence of the relationship between problem solving and organizational improvements, however, "how" this linkage is actually facilitated is not well understood. Studies in industrial engineering and operations research have traditionally emphasized measurable outcomes and the rational aspects of technical problem solving but have yet to saturate the research landscape with more qualitative exploration of the actual processes that leverage engineering knowledge embedded in local contexts.

Motivated by the gaps in research, a two-stage empirical study was conducted to probe deeply into the "black box" of engineering knowledge creation. The study used the exploratory sequential mixed methods research approach to uncover potentially relevant factors for EPS efforts to attain sustained learning, which was defined and subsequently operationalized as "positive system changes." In the first phase, a qualitative investigation using grounded theory helped to develop a conceptual model of EPS dynamics. In the second and last phase, this model was tested quantitatively using partial least squares analysis to assess the extent to which the theorized concept can be generalized across a larger engineering sample.

The study findings show that contextual factors alone are not sufficient for EPS efforts to result in sustained learning. While these factors have direct effects on operational efficiency and partially affect the effectiveness of problem correction, the EPS processes do not accomplish system changes without first carrying out knowledge creation routines. These routines are a form of sensemaking posited as necessary for cognitive convergence and achievement of a unified interpretation. To the best of our knowledge, this study is first to quantitatively model the concept of ba as a deliberately created environment that promotes such routines, as well as to apply it in a U.S. engineering context. A set of recommendations for engineering knowledge management are provided for practice. For theory, the outcomes of this research illuminate the little addressed link that connects EPS to organizational learning and by so doing contribute to a more complete epistemology of engineering practices.