Elon Musk’s Engineering Principles – The 5 Step Process

There’s this interview with Elon Musk, showing around the SpaceX rocket production facility in Texas. There’s a lot of talk about rockets and stuff, though in between he’s giving some fascinating insights into the design process and the principles he’s following. The “5 Step Process” as he calls it. Wanted to write it up for myself, so I though I can share it here as well.

The following is a collection of what’s said during the interview, content composed from the subtitles. Did slight adjustments for readability.

<quotes by=”Elon Musk”>

I have a rule just implement rigorously is the sort of 5 Step Process.

1) Make your requirements less dumb

  • Your requirements are definitely dumb. It does not matter who gave them to you.
  • It’s particularly dangerous, if a smart person gave you the requirements, because you might not question them enough.
  • Everyone’s wrong, no matter who you are, everyone’s wrong some of the time.

2) Try very hard to delete the part or process

  • The bias tends to be very strongly towards “let’s add this part or the process step in case we need it”.
  • If you’re not adding things back in 10% of the time, you’re clearly not deleting enough.
  • Whatever requirement or constraint you have, it must come with a name, not a department. Cause you can’t ask the departments, you have to ask a person and that person who’s putting forward the requirement or constraint must agree that. They must take responsibility for that requirement. Otherwise you could have a requirement that basically an intern two years ago randomly came up with and they’re not even at the company anymore. And actually there’s no one at the department that currently agrees with that.

3) Simplify or optimize

  • The reason it’s the third step is cause it’s very common, possibly the most common error of a smart engineer, to optimize the thing that should not exist. Why would you do that? Everyone has been trained in high school and college that you gotta answer the question, convergent logic. So you can’t tell a professor “your question is dumb”. You will get a bad grade. So everyone, without knowing it, they got like a mental straight jacket on that is they’ll work on optimizing the thing that should simply not exist.
  • There’s another important principle, which is that you really want everyone to be chief engineer. So if everyone is chief engineer means that people need to understand the system at a high level to know when they are making a bad optimization.

4) Accelerate cycle time

You’re moving too slow, go faster. But don’t go faster until you’ve worked on the other three things first. If you’re digging your grave, don’t dig it faster, stop digging your grave.

5) Automate

I have personally made the mistake of going backwards on all five steps multiple times. Literally I automated, accelerated, simplified and then deleted. Automating was a mistake. Accelerating was mistake. Optimizing was a mistake. We just deleted and just bypassed this $2 million robot cell as a complete pile of nonsense.


I think, currently a factory is underrated and design is overrated. So people generally think that, in this Eureka moment you come up with the idea and that’s it, now it’s good. But we design like this: literally a thousand percent, maybe 10000% more work that goes into the manufacturing system than the thing itself. Basically the amount of effort that goes into the design rounds down to zero, relative to the amount of the effort that goes into the manufacturing system.

And if this was not true, I’d be like “1000 Raptors [rocket engines] please. – Oh, you can’t make them? Oh, okay :(“

So this is like just very fundamentally underappreciated. If people have not been in manufacturing, especially manufacturing of something that’s relatively new, then they don’t understand. They think the design is the hard part, and they think production is like a copier or something like that. This is completely false. I can’t emphasize enough, I’m trying to correct the misperception that design is the hard part. It is not the hard part.