Design First – Build Later

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Design First!

Sounds simple. It makes sense. But far too many people do not do this. They put together an idea, a process, but fail to take the design to completion before starting to build. Cutting corners always comes at a price. There is an old saying in Project Management, “You can have it Good, Fast or Cheap, pick any TWO”. Cutting corners will bump your cost, decrease quality, or possibly both.

A while ago I was tasked with designing and building a system for groundwater and soil remediation. The science was basic. The groundwater contained multiple hydrocarbons including both light ends and DNAPLs and the soil above the water line also contained volatile hydrocarbons that were creeping up from the contaminated water. We had made many of these in the past, and since. The issue was not the remediation science, the issues were in the complexity of the system and the physical constraints of the project.

I have made countless containerized systems, where you fit the equipment into standard, or in some cases high cube, 40 foot long ISO shipping containers. This is a very effective method as it allows the system to be easily shipped anywhere while providing a safe, robust enclosure for the system to operate. ISO containers are also quite plentiful, and reasonably priced, making the economics of their use is advantageous.

The First Issue

The container needed to be compartmentalized. We were going to be bringing in groundwater that contained various hydrocarbons, some of which were light end and volatile. The part of the container that housed the incoming feed piping from the wells, the oil water separator, and the double wall tank for hydrocarbon storage was a Class 1 Div 1 enclosure. The remainder was General purpose and housed the valve banks, the controls, and an air compressor to run the Sparge Lines.

Noise was not allowed. Seriously, the system was to be used close to a residential area and we had to make it run at below 60 dB. This complicated the space issue. We built a small room around the compressor, and then had to install multiple acoustic attenuators within the container including a Helmholz Resonator on the ventilation fan and on the intake louver for ventilation. Each box was six feet long, four feet high, and two feet wide.

Real estate was at an absolute premium. Which leads to:

The Second Issue

The second issue tying in with the first was the complexity of the system. We needed to control the whole system from within the General Purpose room. Therefore, every incoming line had to pass through the barrier between the two rooms, receive its necessary process controls and be measured, then pass back to the Class 1 Div 1 room. We accomplished this with two separate Valve banks. One on either side of a quarter inch A36 steel plate with full couplings welded into it. The plate was a eloquent solution that was removable for maintenance.

Class 1 Div 1 Valve Bank
Class 1 Division 1 Valve & Gauge Bank

The first picture shows the Class 1 Div 1 side of the enclosure. The operators needed to be able to monitor pressures in real time and have full, instant shut off control of each line from within that enclosure. The solution was simple, robust, effective and practical. It looks simple, and it is, but it is what we had on the other side that makes it somewhat, insane.

controls and instrumentation valve bank
Controls & Instrumentation

And here we have the backside. Each line incorporated both controls and instrumentation. The operators have full system knowledge and oversight from the control room. Being general purpose, the solenoid valves were demonstrably more economical than their Class 1 Div 1 counterparts would have been. Considering the number of them, this saved the Client a small fortune. The blue plate in the first picture can be seen high up on the wall. This was an extremely complex piping spool to build. The secret to the success of the build was the effort put into the design. Design First. Then Build.

And just to be complete, here is the third valve bank in that system.

valves and gauges
Valves & Gauges on Pump Lines

The SolidWorks Advantage

The shear number of components, the routing, the supports, make this virtually impossible to design by hand. Not only did everything have to fit, it must be easy to operate, and easy to maintain. We always design with the Operator and Maintainers in mind.

Using the 3D CAD package, SolidWorks, we were able to complete a full design, and test that design for operational requirements. It is also quite handy that SolidWorks will generate an accurate and complete Bill of Materials to make Purchasing happy.  There are a number of high quality 3D packages out there, I simply prefer SolidWorks.

Moral of the Story

Generally, the later in the Project lifecycle that we make mistakes, the more costly those mistakes are. For example, any work done in the field costs at least three times as much, in both time and money, as work in the shop. It is better to make your mistakes on a computer screen where the correction only costs you a few minutes, then it is during testing when you have to rip out a Valve Bank and delay delivery to the Client.

Design first – Then Build Later. That sounds simple, but many do it backwards, and pay for it. If halfway through the build your tradesmen are coming to you with suggestions of how to better design the system, you have already failed. A good designer will always run his ideas by his colleagues on the floor and get their input while the design is still on the screen. These guys work hands on eight hours a day, five days a week. They know what works and what doesn’t. They are one of your most valuable assets as a Design Engineer. Once completed, hand the drawings to the Manufacturing Manager to be red-lined, then to the Quality Manager for a similar review. Yes it will take an hour or two of their time, but they will invariably catch mistakes, or make suggestions, that will save many more hours and dollars during the build, and may frustrations for the Operators down the road.

Design First – Then Build.


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Communication Stovepipes

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Stovepipes.

Stovepipes at Word
Stovepipes at Work for Decades

This is an old term from the international spy world. It is a Tradecraft term. The idea is to create a medium in which essential information is gathered, filtered and transported up the management ladder. In the spy world it was driven by the paradox of required secrecy and the need to know. It was absolutely essential that nobody knew what information was moving, who was moving it, and where it was going. As such the various intelligence communities around the globe developed ingenious stovepipe mechanisms.

Stove pipes were also completely independent. From the tradecraft perspective this provided security for each stovepipe if others were compromised. Independent actions also allowed for each stovepipe to be massaged to work best for its purpose. Independence gave each stovepipe the ability to be flexible yet highly efficient.

Stovepipes in Industry

Now you might be wondering how tradecraft developed by organizations like the CIA, KGB or Mossad would have any bearing on your business. They are the perfect mechanism for information transfer across multiple levels within an organization. At each level, a participant will be tasked to filter out the information coming to them. Then they will prioritize that information and feed the information upward, or downward as required.

The stovepipe methodology provides a quick and simple path for essential information, while blocking out noise. Today in most industries, especially in email use, noise is the issue. We tend instead to simply copy everyone on everything. This is not only unnecessary, it is highly damaging to your organization. When every person has to filter out the noise from a hundred or more emails every day, and figure out which ones contain important information, then find that information, your organization will grind to a halt. People will tend to simply ignore everything that does not seem immediately important at face value.

So, in our attempts to give everyone all the information we have that we think they need, we simply drown them in noise and they get nothing.

Disconnect

This leads to disconnect. I have seen it in many organizations. Each level of management and operations is filled with good people, honest, hard working people. They try their best and work at hard and as smart as possible. Yet between those levels, and especially when jumping over a couple of levels, there is a significant disconnect.

Each level in the organization will have a different view of what is happening within. Each will behave differently based on these perceptions. There comes a horrible side effect into play at that point. As you travel down the ranks the people will feel unappreciated and ignored. They will feel that senior management simply is not listening and does not care too. They will believe that the boss has no clue what is going on and is horribly mismanaging the outfit. And they are somewhat right.

In an organization that does not have a proper stovepipe system in place, the senior management will not have a clue what is happening on the ground. There will be too much noise rising up and important, vital information either gets stalled or blocked completely. Management does care, but is not getting a clear picture and thus making errors in judgement.

From the management point of view, they will feel as though the people on the ground are dim witted, lazy and insubordinate. The boss will be pulling his hair out because he is not being informed of critical issues until it is too late to economically and effectively mitigate them. What could have been handled by a simple phone call, now requires flying halfway across the continent to fix a problem at a customer’s site.

This disconnect will lead to morale issues, high turnovers, poor efficiencies, high rework ratios, in fighting and office politics and a general poor behaviour within the company. Management will distrust labour, labour will distrust management. It will be “us” and “them” from top to bottom.

One commonly attempted, too common, “solution” is the hold meetings. You sit around for three hours in a meeting where you speak for two minutes and have to listen to an encyclopedia of information that does not involve you. Or, my favourite, when everyone gathers and simply reads off the log. They sit there are read to each other from the paper that they are all holding in their hands. Insanity! Most meetings today could be handled by a one line email.

Decision Disfunction

Do you have a problem in your business where people are always running to management to make simple decisions that should be made on the ground? How about managers that routinely micro-manage everything? How often have you heard the snickers from the floor when someone makes an ineffective or outright wrong decision? And the water cooler talk always centers around how the person making the decision was out of touch with what was going on around them. The person making the decision did not have the proper information, even though seemingly everybody else did.

The people on the ground are up against a wall expected to execute a plan that simply cannot work. The managers are dumbfounded that their plans, which seem perfect, fail. This goes on day after day. People get more frustrated, morale sinks, and the animosity between people grows. Then people start getting fired and don’t understand why.

At this point everyone starts to panic. People become afraid for their jobs and close up. Information becomes less available. Communications break down completely. Fingers start getting pointed. Now, instead of searching for solutions, people are searching for ways to cover their butts and point the blame to others. It is usually at this point that everyone really starts copying everyone on literally everything. The email overflow will grind an organization to a stand still. People will also hide critical information, as an ace up their sleeve, just in case a finger gets pointed at them.

Stovepipe Salvation

What we need are stovepipes. We need to develop organized lines of communication, a hierarchy, a reporting chain. At each level, a person must be appointed to take the position of gathering the information that is coming in at that level, triaging what is vital and urgent, and passing that information upward in a clear, concise manner. They are your Gate Keepers.

Those Gate Keepers will also be tasked with taking information down and disseminating it to the people at his/her level in the organization. We often hear the term lately “flat organization”. This sound nice, but in reality it doesn’t work, especially for communications. Here is why.

When you have two people in an organization, you have one line of communication. When you have three, you get three lines of communication. Add a fourth person and it jumps to six lines. A fifth person and you have ten lines.

The formula is L=N(N-1)/2, where N is the number of people, and L is the number of lines. So an organization of 100 people would have 100(100-1)/2=4950 lines of communication. An organization of 3,500 would have 3,500(3,500-1)/2=6,123,250 lines of communication.

SIX MILLION LINES OF COMMUNICATION!

Now imagine some of the big companies with tens of thousands of people. Can you see why flat organizations exist only on paper and why stovepipes are absolutely essential? It is our only salvation from that unholy mess.

Each Stovepipe must run from top to bottom. It must be a clear, unobstructed line from the Board of Directors, through the CEO down to to lowest individual in each sub-organization. Thankfully most companies already have a tool in place to help. It is called the Organizational Chart. You should be able to draw most of your stovepipes on it. At each junction, and especially at each fork, we need to establish a Gate Keeper that filters the information and transports it as needed. The Gate Keeper must be qualified for that position.

Information will now travel quickly up and down the lines, get to those who need it, and be properly processed. Decision makers will be able to confidently make those critical decisions because they will have immediate access to critical data. Boots on the ground will be free to pass concerns and questions up the ladder and receive timely and accurate responses. Decisions will be executed in an orderly and timely fashion and fires can be quickly extinguished before the whole project burns to the ground.

Stovepipe Decisions

The second salvation of Stovepipes is that they are designed to be the most effective and efficient decision making matrix. In a Stovepipe organization, the person closest to the decision, with the necessary skills to make that decision, is the one who makes it.

People are empowered. They are given a mandate. They are given authority. They are given information. They are given accountability. Each person in the organization becomes a decision maker. Each one works as both a technician, and as a manager. Every decision gets made by the person most qualified to make it. Every decision is made as efficiently as possible, by the person closest to it as possible, and will thus be executed in the most timely and efficient manner.

These ingredients are essential for it to work.

  1. Mandate
  2. Authority
  3. Information
  4. Accountability.

The Stovepipe will provide the tools for these ingredients to mix and succeed.

Go to your Organizational Chart. Update it! Draw your Stovepipes. Assign your Gate Keepers. Develop your communication protocols, whether it be a daily email report, a ten minute meeting, a phone call, updating a log etc. Empower your staff to make those critical decisions at the closest level possible.

Your Stovepipes will streamline your systems and communications, bring everyone into a common understanding on issues, pass information expediently, and get the right decisions made and executed in the most timely and efficient fashion. It will also break down the “us” and “them” problem. Stovepipes are a wonderful tool for reducing confusion and mistrust because they filter the noise and allow for full, direct, concise communication at all levels.


 

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Turning Your Greatest Liability Into Your Greatest Asset

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The Balancing Act

The Delicate Balance
The Delicate Balance of Assets and Liabilities

Operating a business is a balancing act. We have to balance liabilities with assets. We have to balance income with expenditures. We have to balance growth with cost. In this constant turmoil, this dynamic environment that can change in a heartbeat, there is an opportunity for us to take our Biggest Liability and turn it into our Greatest Asset.

People now are thinking cost, cash, consumables, credit, accounts payable etc. But none of those qualify as your biggest liability.

Your Biggest Liability is Your Staff!

Your Greatest Asset, is also Your Staff.

The difference rests on how you treat them.

There was a time when a person went to work for a company, and 45 years later, they retired. It was very common to work your entire career with one single employer. Loyalty was regarded as sacrosanct, both by workers and by employers. Times have changed.

Today it is common for a person to change employers more than seven times in their careers, and to change careers more than once as well. In the 1990’s people stayed with an employer for five to ten years, today we see people hanging around for only two or three years.

The cost to employers is HUGE. It has been estimated that it can cost the equivalent of nine months salary on average to hire a new employee. Higher paying executive and advanced technical positions can cost a company as much as twice the annual salary of that employee. Even high turnover, low skilled jobs cost at least 20% of the annual salary of that employee to hire them. And every time you hire somebody new, you are gambling that they will meld with your team and be productive.

Then there is the problem that when a person leaves, they are taking their experience with them. The longer you can keep an employee, the greater their value to you.

It is a balancing act to maintain a constant workforce that meets the production needs of a company. Keeping too many people on staff gets expensive in the lean times. Firing and hiring is expensive all the time.

Worker Attitude

We keep hearing cliches like “we hire for attitude not for aptitude; skills can be learned”. It sounds wonderful. It has a place in hiring. Unfortunately, it does not matter how happy, jovial and easy-going a person is, if they cannot produce the basic function of their job, they are useless. It quite simply takes time for a person to learn a skill set. The more advanced the skill, the longer it takes.

Here is another little secret that should be obvious, yet many seem oblivious too. The happiest, most optimistic, hardest working individual, will not be that way for long if they feel that they are not appreciated. The corollary to that is the biggest jerk will perform when they are being treated well and given credit for their abilities and performance.

The attitude of the worker depends on the attitude of the employer. That is why it has been said that a person will take a job based on the company, but stay with a job based on the supervisor. If the company and its management does not treat people with respect, the best performers will not perform at their best. The best performers will also look for work elsewhere. Eventually the company will be left with the people who could not find other work, and those workers will not put in a great effort. Worker attitude rests on employer attitude.

If on the other hand we show our appreciation for our employees. If we take the extra step of recognizing their efforts and achievements. If we, as managers, go the extra mile to remove the impediments that prevent people from excelling at what they do. If we take their needs into consideration and make exceptions for them when they have troubles. If we pay them a fair wage with bonuses. If we honestly listen to them, deal with their concerns, and implement their suggestions. Then we will have a positive work force that will excel, that will perform, and that will have our backs when there is trouble.

Investing in Your Assets

Now that we have seen how to take our biggest liability, our people, and turn them into our greatest asset, how do we invest in that asset?

The first way, we have spoken of, give them credit. When they have a genius idea, give them credit for it. When they solve a problem, give them credit for it. Let everyone know what they have done for the company and reward them openly.

The second way to invest in your employees is to mentor them. Maybe not personally, but set up a mentoring program in your business that pairs up junior staff with senior staff. It allows for transfer of knowledge and it builds teamwork and a sense of family.

Next, promote teamwork. Send your office staff out on the shop floor to talk to your production staff. Host regular events, BBQ hamburgers on Friday for them, get them out curling, or playing softball. Work on building true friendships in your plant. Not only will that encourage people to stay, when troubles arise, the people will work together to solve the problems instead of pointing fingers at each other and blaming.

The Fourth step is to invest in their professional development. Send them on courses. Pay for their professional fees. Host lunch-and-learns. Bring in experts to give seminars. And here is a shocker, if your workplace is unionized, sit down with your union representatives outside of normal negotiation periods and ask them what kind of professional development they would like. Send your Shop Steward on a negotiations course for example. It will pay off for you.

Be a Person, not a Title
Be a Person, not a Name or a Title

And the fifth and most important step for investing in your staff is to be present. This goes to the owners, to the Board of Directors, to the Officers. This is especially, but not solely, for the VP’s, the CEO the COO and any other combination of letters that keeps you locked up in an office. It goes for Project Managers, for Supervisors, Foremen, and anyone else charged with looking after people. Be there with them. Show up at your facility. Sit and talk with your people, take notes, get personal. Don’t fake it. Find a reason to genuinely care about each and every person on the payroll. Be a human being to them, not just a name or a title. Start treating them as friends and family and show your personal appreciation.

There have been many books written on this topic. You can take courses and engage consultants to help you. But really, keep it simple and it will work for you. Invest in your people and your biggest liability will become your greatest asset.


 

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Tribal Knowledge

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Tribal Knowledge

It can be the bane of an organization. What is Tribal Knowledge? It is the knowledge that has been built up in an organization among those with the greatest local experience, that never gets properly recorded. Every company has it, from the smallest Ma and Pa store to the largest most complex manufacturing and processing conglomerates.

How can it be a problem for senior people to carry around vital information in their heads? There are several problems with it. Sure it is absolutely wonderful that those people are the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that they are. It is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing, for there to be a go-to person in every area of your plant, an expert to call on for the most pressing concerns. The problem is, the information is not recorded, not written down, not cataloged.

I worked at a refinery where four men retired at the same time. Between them they had over 100 years of combined experience. These were well seasoned, highly trained, intelligent, hard working, conscientious men. Each man was an encyclopedia unto himself of the areas that he had worked. These were four men that everyone automatically went to with tough questions. These guys always had answers and knew secrets that baffled others. When they walked out the gate, 100 years of combined experience and expertise walked out the gate with them. Literally the first day after they left, they were all sorely missed. Not just because they were great guys, and they were indeed, but because their input was not only wanted, but desperately needed.

Documentation

The medical device industry is one of the most strictly regulated and documented industries on earth. You go into a production lab and you will not find a single sheet of paper that is not an official, signed, stamped document. You will find written procedures, with drawings and photographs for every single operation. It will tell you which serialized screw driver to use to turn which screw. It will detail which numbered bin the screw is in. The documents will even require you to catalog the very lot numbers of each part. The quality control and assurance in a medical device manufacturer would shame virtually any other industry.

Yet, if you go to work in one, you will find even with their extensive documentation and control, there is still a significant volume of Tribal Knowledge. It seems no matter how much we write down, we never cover it all.

This issue is partly caused by the need to be terse. Documentation must have the necessary components without being onerous. Information overload is the danger to be avoided, and the avoidance creates an absence of proper documentation.

Solution: Multi-level Documentation

That sounds simple, and really it is. Institute a multi-level documentation system. Have one basic document for operations. Have a second, deeper document for maintenance, and a third all inclusive document for engineering and design. It could even be done in one document with multiple sections.

This cannot be a static document!

Documents that are not regularly updated become stale and obsolete. I had a vendor email me one day asking if he could use the most up to date codes because the ones in the company standard were obsolete and he could not even find a copy of them. Documents are living creations. They must be continually updated.

Solution: A comprehensive Management of Change(MOC) program.

With a proper document control system, every document will list all documents that rely on or pertain to it. So when you run an MOC, you pull the primary document, and you also pull the secondary documents listed on it. When you make a change to one, you simply update the others. This also allows for your MOC to identify repercussions from you proposed changes more readily. And it is a good idea to get a decent document control software package. There are many on the market to choose from.

This will help with the paperwork, but what about the people?

Mentorship

I have worked in numerous industries for a wide variety of companies, from basement startups to multi billion dollar international enterprises. And I am sad to say that in all that time, in over 30 years of work, I have yet to see a formal mentorship program in a business. That is a sad truth.

A mentorship program will take these old-timers and pair them up with a few younger, middle aged workers to teach them and prepare them. The middle aged or intermediate workers will be paired up with junior employees as well. The tribal knowledge will then begin to flow down through the generations. It is important when setting up a mentor program that a person’s mentor is not their supervisor. A mentor has to encourage you to go beyond your comfort zone and to take chances. A supervisor often has to encourage an employee to stay within their expertise band to maintain high performance. There could be a conflict of interest, and in that case, the mentoring will always lose out.

It is also important to acknowledge an employee’s career goals when choosing a mentor. If an operator is looking to be a supervisor, then one of his/her mentors should be somebody in a supervisory position. If, however, they are looking to become technical masters, then their mentor should be a technical master. A key feature in any professional development plan is a formal mentorship program.

The mentors now also have to be trained. They have to receive leadership training. They need to learn how to teach and coach. Knowing how to do something, and knowing how to teach it, are completely different skill sets. I had some University professors that were so intelligent, so accomplished at their craft, you wondered if they were from another planet, yet their ability to teach others was somewhat limited. It is sad to lock away such brilliance and not be able to share it.

The mentorship program must be formal. There must be one person who is called to champion the program, and given the resources and authority to make it happen. That person also must be passionate about it, as every champion must. People should be signed up and the process monitored. The monitoring is to find weaknesses in the program and strengthen it through continuous improvement.

Even with flawed documentation, a quality mentorship program will ensure that the tribal knowledge built up through the years will be passed down to successive generation. Not only will that expertise flow, it will be built upon. Successive generations will not be continually wasting enormous efforts reinventing the wheel, they will be improving the existing wheel and avoiding repeating past mistakes.

If you only take one thing from this article, let it be the absolute need for a formal, well thought out, mentorship program in your business.


 

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My Best Guy

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Don’t Promote Your Best Guy!

Leadership
Leadership, from where you least expect

You have a facility, a factory, a workshop. And in your shop you have many different positions, a diversity of training and experience, a plethora of people. Each of them is working to become masters of their trades and professions. Each person has a finely tuned technical skill set. Each person applies that skill set differently in the workplace, reacting the specifics of each project they contribute to. All is well.

We watch our people, we train them, we assess them and rate them. Hopefully we also actively participate in their professional development. Often when we do, it is usually a matter of sending them to trade shows or industry specific training like an ASME 31.3 course. This is all good. But this is not enough.

Now a position opens up in your shop for a foreman or area manager. Who do you promote to that position? The standard answer, unfortunately also the wrong answer, is usually “My Best Guy”, or Girl as the case may be. But you are asking “why is this wrong?”. Why is the best worker in the department, the most skilled tradesman/woman, the highest educated PhD engineer not the person to lead the team? Surely they would know the most about the work the team is doing and be the go-to person for the most difficult technical decisions.

Yes they probably are the go-to guy for the TECHNICAL decisions, or at least for technical consultation. Why did I differentiate that? They may be more technically skilled than the rest of the team combined, maybe the world authority in their field, but that does not mean they are the best choice to lead the team.

Leadership and Management are Separate Skill Sets

The best person to lead a team is a team leader, not a technician. Leadership is a skill set. Management is also a skill set. There is a difference between project management, operational management and discipline management as well. They are similar, but different enough that, for example, a skilled and experienced project manager will have a learning curve to deal with when handed a maintenance management position.

And yes leadership and management are separate entities. They are not separate jobs, but separate skill sets. Management is about organization. Leadership is about buy in and team building. We can become great leaders and horrible managers, or vice versa. And neither of those skill sets are technical.

The Fallout

When we take a highly skilled technician and put them in charge of a group, a couple of things will happen. The first thing is that they will be overbearing in their technical opinions. They don’t do it on purpose, but they know that they are the experts. People have been coming to them for advice for a very long time. They will tend to cling to the technical part a little too tightly and not give their people room to grow and perform. Letting go of the technical part and leaving it to my technical team was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn when I made the transition from the bench to the desk.

The second thing that happens is the technician is not inundated with management tasks. He/she now has to organize work, plan, schedule and budget. These are skill that must be learned. Often, during our professional development of these people, we have given them only technical courses and left off the business courses entirely. A skilled, highly trained, experienced electrical engineer is no better at management than an average person walking in off of the street. They need training!

Then there is the dreaded soft skill shortfall. Let’s be brutally honest. Technicians and engineers are not overflowing in people skills. Leadership is a people skill set. Leadership is team building. Leadership is conflict resolution. A Leader is a father, mother, pastor, cop, judge, doctor, mentor, psychologist, team captain and water boy all rolled up into one. A Leader must wear numerous hats, often at the same time. Leadership is a separate skill set. Having a person in a leadership role that does not have leadership skills will kill your team. Morale will drop, production will suffer, quality will erode, and people will leave. Leaders need to be trained!

Set Up for Failure

When we take our “best guy” and promote him off the bench, we set them up for failure. Think about it. You are the leader and the manager. Your shop has been running successfully, therefore your leadership and management skills are at least somewhat honed. You may very well be an expert. So take that expertise and develop leadership and management skills in every subgroup in your business. Find the people, not who are the best techs, but who are the best leaders and managers. Find them and coach them. Train them and mentor them. Prepare them for the roles of team leaders, foremen, and managers.

And a side note, when you take your best tech and promote them off the bench, you are losing your best technical asset from that team. You are taking an individual that is excelling and contributing as much to the business as is physically possible, and moving them to a position where they will likely be a resource drain and an overall hinderance.

And to answer the question of why I differentiated making technical decisions from consulting on them, the person consulting only has to offer an opinion. The level of responsibility is usually lighter. The involvement is usually less as well. They are usually asked a specific technical question on a specific part of a much larger comprehensive project. As such they only have to consider that small window, and not the whole picture. They can then drill down on a very narrow range of possibilities and consequences. The project manager or lead then takes their advice and makes the decision based on the entire project.

Mentor your people. Train you future leaders and managers today. Professional development is not just technical development. There was a saying in the Military, “it takes 15 years to develop a Sergeant with 15 years experience”. There are no shortcuts. If you need them tomorrow, and you will, train them properly today. Then promote your best “leaders and managers”, and leave your expert techs on the bench.


 

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Critical Path Myopia

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In the wonderful world of project management, one of our first and most critical roles is to determine the critical path activities within our project execution schedule. This goes hand in hand with identifying all long lead items and expediting their arrival to meet with critical milestones. We have all learned to do this well.

Unfortunately we often tend to do it too well. We become myopic. We get our critical path identified and focus only on those specific items. At the end of our projects, we sit back and count up our B-Deficiencies. Why do we have deficiencies? How on earth can we make the insane requirements of the critical path schedule, and miss on everything else? Critical Path Myopia.

Events that do not fall on the critical path are also critical. We, however, tend to put them off.For example, if we were recertifying an API-653 regulated tank, our critical path could include items like installing the liner, pouring the concrete subfloor, jacking columns, preparing a nozzle sheet etc. But just as critical are the Foam Chambers for fire suppression. They is not on the critical patch because you can do them pretty much anytime that the wind isn’t howling too hard to get up in a lift. Thus we tend not to focus on them. We have a crew, we have a critical path, we hit that path hard. We don’t want to sacrifice manpower on a non-critical item when we are in danger of slipping on the critical items. Then we find that we are buttoning up after the hydro test and the Foam Chambers are not replaced.

Now the Foam Chambers are your critical path and you are stuck because you let them slip. Now you cannot return your tank to service because you do not have appropriate fire protection. Now your refinery is paying for a day or two of demurrage and your crew is on overtime to get the job done. Maybe there is an air freight shipment charge involved to expedite some parts to site as well.

Critical Path Myopia is a common, and is a dangerous and expensive practice. While it is vital to identify, plan and execute the critical path, it is equally vital to keep the whole program on track. Deficiencies at the the end of a project are a sign that we have fallen into the trap of Critical Path Myopia.

Don’t get nearsighted. Don’t be blinded by the critical path. Don’t allow the “lesser things” to fall out of your attention. Remember, it is the little foxes that spoil the vine. Once you have identified your critical path, ensure that you have also allocated sufficient resources to complete all secondary tasks on time, on spec, and on budget.

As they say in hockey, keep your head up, and your stick on the ice.


 

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“Not My Job”

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“Not My Job”

Not My Job
Not My Job.

How painfully often we hear this phrase pronounced at the job site. Something needs to be done, and sometimes we are often asked to do it, but we firmly state “That is not my job”, and let it go. The business suffers, safety gets compromised, customers leave. Factories close and then indeed it will not be your job for you won’t have a job left to go to.

There is a tendency in the workplace to identify a list of roles and responsibilities, which we do need to do, but then use it for the wrong purposes. Our stated roles and responsibilities at work are not an all inclusive list, they are merely the backbone of our job. These are the things that we must do in order to keep the company moving. These are the vital aspects that we are most qualified at, and that have been placed on our plates.

A workplace is a homogeneous group of heterogeneous components; people. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. Each of us is an expert in some areas, and a complete novice, even totally incompetent at others. Our roles and responsibilities should be composed of those things for which we are experts. There are times that we are experts in certain areas, and we are also pushed out from doing those things. That will happen. That is not a good thing.

But what I want to focus on today are the things that are not on our lists, the things that we confidently claim “are not my job”. Let me tell you a secret.

THEY ARE YOUR JOB!

We, as employees, as managers, as tradesmen, as operators, as clerks, as drivers, as administrators and HR and every other title under the sun, are ALL responsible for anything and everything that happens at the workplace. We are ALL responsible for safety. We are ALL responsible for costs and budgets. We are ALL responsible for customer satisfaction. We are ALL responsible for environmental compliance. We are ALL responsible for product and service quality.

If something is “not your job”, then please resign and go home and drink tea because there are thousands of people available, equally or even better qualified, with a far better attitude that would be more than happy to make it their job.

The global economy is in the toilet. Jobs are running scarce. The solution is to tighten up and perform. Be the best. Make it “Your Job”! Look around at work and see what is not being done, where the gaps are, and take the initiative to fix it. Do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, the way it needs to be done. And if you simply are unqualified to perform the task, then make it your job to ensure that a qualified person gets it done. If you see something that needs welding, get the welders on it. If you see something that needs cleaning, get the cleaners on it. If you see something that you can do, do it. Do it immediately. Do it right.

Make it “Your Job”!

Be a Can Do individual. Be outstanding. Take a proactive approach and use your personal initiative. Stand out in the crowd, take some chances, be bold. Encourage others to do the same.

Make it “Your Job”!


 

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Curing Automation Myths

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Is Automation for You? 

GUI
Simple GUI for a Sludge Dewatering Screen

Automation is a wonder and a dark art to most of the world. Even companies who have large amounts of automation within their own facilities often have misconceptions about how it works. There, for example, is a tendency to lean towards certain brand names, yet those brands are not necessarily better and are possibly more expensive. Below are five big and common myths in the market place about custom factory automation.

  1. Automation is too expensive, it costs millions.

Actually, automation is surprisingly cost effective these days. Today, computer based controllers are effective, efficient and quite reasonably priced. A simple business model for every automation project will demonstrate its quick payback time, reduced operation costs, reduced manpower and skill requirements, and increased productivity. And it is also important to remember that you don’t take and entire process and turn it into a black box solution. First you look at your obvious bottlenecks in your process and mechanize them. As you work your way through the process gradually automating more and more you start integrating them into a complete system.

For a few decades now there has been a move towards off shore manufacturing based on the super low cost of labour in third world countries. The cost of overseas labour is still cheap but the cost of shipping, of waste, of the absence of quality control, of immense orders and long wait times far out ways any up front cost reductions. There is also the issue of the environment. One of the big cost saving in many of these countries is the complete lack of environmental laws or ecological constraints. We are waking up today, finally and thankfully. The solution to pollution is NOT dilution and just because you pollute over there doesn’t mean it won’t come here. Automation is the industry standard of the 21st century.

Most process plants today are economically viable because of automation. You simply could not afford to run an oil refinery or a water treatment plant without it.

  1. Automation costs jobs.

We do not replace people; we automate tasks. The tasks we automate are the ones that are slow, costly, ineffective and inefficient. Automation frees workers to do more interesting and productive tasks. It also improve a company’s competitive position by increasing throughput and quality while reducing or nearly eliminating waste. This improves sales, improves profits and increases your business’s overall performance and shareholder equity. Automating a factory often creates more jobs as it allows the company to gain a greater market share and provide a higher quality product.

Keep it in the tanks
Keep it in the tanks

Automation, especially in the areas of monitoring, reduce or eliminate environmental compliance issues. Automated sensors and controls allow a plant to discover and mitigate problems at the onset, not after a million gallons have been released to a river or lake.

 

  1. Automation is only for big companies.

Any task or process can be automated. There is no maximum or minimum size or complexity requirement. The same rules apply to all automation; the difference is merely one of scale. Even if it’s just a single part pick-and-place or a wash-down line that needs to be timed, we can automate it to save you time and money. Sometimes it is just one task within a complex manufacturing process that is slowing down overall production; that would be the place to start automating. Maybe you just need your pumps on timers or hooked up to simple level switches or temperature probes in tanks. Small organizations can benefit from automation just as easily as large ones.

  1. This industry has been around forever so there are lots of off-the-shelf solutions.

Truly there are a lot of standard options for mechanization. And where a standard product exists, and would be an appropriate solution, I recommend its implementation. Forklifts are the prime example. They are designed to lift, move and stack pallets, yet people buy them and use them for everything but. They are only safe and efficient in the specific task they were designed for. If what you are moving isn’t a pallet, get a machine that will work better for you and save yourself time, money and frustration.

The glass industry, for example, has been around for thousands of years and yet I have worked on many custom machines for a glass processing. As each business has its niche, so does it have its individual processes. Only a few mass-produced systems are compatible with every process within an industry, leaving large gaps in every production process. A custom automation product, however, is tailored to your specific needs and designed to meet your exact requirements. And it is the system that is tailored, using economical, time tested and proven, off-the-shelf components. You can use the same PLC for controlling a primary treatment screening of residential sewage as you would for controlling a cake manufacturing line. The difference is in the application and programming.

  1. If our process changes the new machine will be obsolete.

If you look at your entire process consulting with your technicians and operators when designing your solutions, you can build in flexibility for expansion. The machine you will get will not only be based on your current need, but it will also be parametrically designed to accommodate foreseeable changes in your product or process to match market variations and changes. For example, allowing for differences in sizes of product can allow a machine to fulfil its task for decades.

With automation, the machines are always designed modularly. This is true for hard automation, flexible automation (robotics) and process automation such as water treatment or chemical plants. As new needs arise or change, new modules can be developed and integrated into the system.

Automation has so many benefits for 21st Century manufacturing and process industries. It can no longer be ignored. The cost of automating has reduced significantly over the years with the increased performance of the computers, sensors.


 

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The Seven Habits of Highly Automatable Systems

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Automation

The insides of automation
The insides of simple automation

When we automate, we are really just mechanizing individual tasks, controlling that task with some form of computerization, and linking those tasks together in what is called system integration. So when looking at automation the first step is to identify exactly which tasks you should be mechanizing. Here is a brief list of the seven most common task attributes that immediately lend themselves to automation. Looking around your plant and your processes you will be able to use this list to quickly identify what areas you should be first considering for automation.

  1. You have a task that involves repeatability of motions. Repeatable motions are very boring for people and lead to repetitive strain injuries. This boredom leads to slower production, increased errors, and job dissatisfaction with workers. Repetition leads to complacency among workers. With this comes an marked decrease in quality and substantial increases in rejects and waste. Machines will perform repeatable tasks flawlessly and far quicker than any human leaving the workers to do more involved and interesting tasks. Machines do not get tired or bored and do not need breaks. An automated system can be relied to repeat a task flawlessly, at a prescribed speed without deviation.
  1. Task involves very high accuracy and skill levels. Even and very skilled technician cannot match the accuracy of a machine. We have put machines into service with 0.001” repeatable accuracy. Our closed loop control systems not only allow us to design to an arbitrary accuracy, it will also perform the tasks at a much faster rate than any human can. Reducing the required skill level in a factory and reducing production time are two main requirements for reducing costs and maintaining a competitive edge. The increased accuracy also speaks to higher quality and reduced waste. As well, the higher accuracy will provide you with a superior product in the market place greatly improving your positioning.
  1. Task involves danger. A machine can be programmed to operate within a very specific range of motion. If the task is within a dangerous environment, whether heat, or chemical or dangerous moving parts, a machine is a far simpler and safer method of completing a task than trying to outfit and train a person to perform the same task safely. The automated system can be programmed to stay within a safe physical envelop and be constructed of materials that will withstand the required environment.
  1. Task involves high manpower and time. Every process has a bottleneck, and that bottleneck is usually a manpower or resources issue. Mechanizing and automating tasks or procedures within a process can effectively debottleneck an entire process and often substantially increases productivity while reducing costs. Automation is particularly useful where short run, high throughput is required.
  1. Task involves excessive handling. Material handling is often a slow, resource consuming issue and the more a product is handled the greater the danger of damage to the product and injury to the workers. Material handling has been a standard area of automation for many years but with the advancements and reduced costs of modern computerization, material handling has become a first step in plant automation in most factories. Material handling also comes into play in buffering processes to compensate for variations in production from complimentary processes. When job A feeds into job B and job A varies so you have to keep a small stockpile of goods in order to keep job B running, an automated system is a perfect solution. It will receive parts as they come and feed job B as it is needed and never need human intervention.
  1. Requirement for accurate inspections. Mechanizing and automating your inspection station will assure that you will turn out a far more standardized product with zero rejects going out to your customers. We can design and build equipment that will inspect for colour, clarity, shape, weight, size, texture or dimensions. Modern machine vision has the capability of sampling up to 500 frames per second and can differentiate up to 16 million different colours, which is more than the human eye can discern. Other testing can also be incorporated like for example using ultrasonics to test for cracks in a casting. If you have a specific inspection category, we can automate it.
  1. Offshore competition. Sadly, offshore competition can produce products far cheaper than we can in North America using traditional manufacturing methods. That is, however beginning to change with the high cost of transportation and the high material cost from the waste generated through this method. We can command a competitive edge by mechanizing and automating our processes. Machines allow us to substantially increase our production rates, decrease costs through reduced waste and manpower, and produce a more standardized, higher quality product with far fewer rejects.

It seems simple because it is. Do you have tasks or processes within you plant you need mechanized and automated? Call us, we can help. That is what we do.


 

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