The Ask Control Engineering blog covers all aspects of automation, including motors, drives, sensors, motion control, machine control and embedded systems. Control Engineering answers questions from readers of Control Engineering's print and online magazines, newsletters and other publications.

Who should be making production decisions?

Is 'empowering operators' a good idea? When does decision making become 'too many cooks in the kitchen?'

December 13, 2011


Dear Control Engineering: I was watching the video with Sudipta Bhattacharya about the advantages of leaving decision making to people at the plant level. Somehow I can’t see how that is practical. What kinds of decisions is he talking about?

If you have the impression that he’s suggesting refinery operators adjust output in response to a ticker-tape feed from a commodity market where crude oil futures are being traded, you’re missing the point. He isn’t talking about micromanagement at that kind of level.

On the other hand, if the operators in a given plant are paying attention to what is going on within the company and the larger markets that they serve, they can have a good handle on when it is an opportune time to slow down or shut down for maintenance, as opposed to when it is time to maximize production to take advantage of a favorable market.

His contention is not that plant level people are somehow smarter than management necessarily (although that might be the case depending on who you ask), but that they may be privy to detail that can inform a decision better than someone looking down from 30,000 feet. As Bhattacharya points out, having to go to management to get clearance to take down a unit in a critical situation simply slows down the decision-making process. Well informed plant-level people that have a strong grasp of their objectives and have the kind of business-level information that they need can make such a call more quickly when the situation requires it.

Of course, empowerment requires accountability. Such empowered individuals must be ready and willing to deal with the consequences of their decisions, so some at the plant level may not welcome such responsibility. Answers to these questions will be based on the people involved and the larger corporate culture, so no two situations will be exactly the same. Some companies with strict centralized planning would find this idea horrifying, but such companies sacrifice agility to maintain control.

Peter Welander, pwelander(at)cfemedia.com