7 things control engineers should know about management

How to communicate effectively with management and accelerate your career: Engineers should know these 7 things about management today. Don’t wait for others to delegate the needed resources or complain that they haven’t. Leadership can be innate, earned, learned, or situational, but knowing these strategies and tactics and reviewing these examples can help you succeed. (See also: 7 things noncontrol people should know about control engineers.) Send a link to others, so they understand.


No matter your area of controls or automation, knowing 7 simple strategies can ease your communications with management and help advance your organization. Courtesy: Control EngineeringThese seven things engineers need to know about management can increase your effectiveness today, right where you are. Don't look here for wishes about how things should be; save that for a discussion over a beer at your next summit or roundtable meeting. Discussion of the "7 things" begins with a brief primer on management and leadership. [Read the companion article: "7 things noncontrol people should know about control engineers."]

Management vs. leadership

Management is the act of achieving a targeted result with limited resources. Those resources are money, material, and people. If you had unlimited resources, no management skill would be required. Anyone can be assigned to a management position. In business the manager must perform. The farther you move away from a "Mom and Pop" shop toward a Fortune 500 company, the greater the demand for performance.

Leadership is an attribute/a trait: Some have it and some do not. People follow a leader. Factors that determine who is a leader are vague at best; personality and physical appearance, or education and mastery of the task, who can say? The truth is we have all seen many leaders who are lacking in one or more of these traits. Leadership may be innate, earned, learned, or situational. (In this circumstance, I am the leader.) Whatever creates leader, we recognize them immediately.

I served in various management positions in a Fortune 500 company for 15 years. Perhaps it was the West Point background, perhaps the school of hard knocks, but over time I developed a very distinct leadership style. For me, two traits are absolutes for a good leader: honesty and consistency. People will follow a leader when uncertain or having doubts, trusting in the implied honesty. (Countries have gone down in flames when a dishonest leader was at the helm.) Consistency allows people to develop a method of dealing with you.

If I scream at you today for breaking a pencil and forgive you tomorrow for a half a million dollar mistake, you grow ulcers every time you see me coming. You cannot develop a way to deal with me because you do not know which personality you will encounter. Consistency coupled with honesty yields respect.

Leading to results

The manager is not necessarily the leader, and the leader may not be a manager. A teacher manages the classroom and may appear to be the leader. However, sometimes the leader may be a student (which is often disruptive). We have all encountered that manager with zero people skills. "Why do they keep him?" The answer is simple: He performs. Give him credit, he has found a way to be effective. A manager's job security is directly related to his ability to achieve results. Leadership is optional. (If you do not like this concept, please reread the first paragraph.)

The company sets targeted goals for managers, and managers must perform and be judged according to those goals. A leader has the freedom to choose goals.

When an effective manager is an excellent leader, the result is so memorable we tell the story for years: "Ahhh, yes. I remember W. Michael Schmedlapp at Ticonderoga back in 1978. He was the best boss I ever had." We cannot wait for our "Schmedlapp" to appear, and we cannot blame our lack of effectiveness on his absence in our chain of command, so let's roll up our sleeves and get started. 

1. We are a profit company.

Only the government can offer job security while losing money year after year. If a company does not turn a profit, all its employees end up unemployed. Remember a manager's motivation when you talk to her. At the lower levels the manager's concern is department budgets and goals; at mid-level it's plant profitability; and at higher levels it becomes division profitability, market share, and global presence.

Corollary: Every one of us has the same job description—help my boss meet her goals.

Every person in a company is supporting the goals of the next level up. Even the CEO supports the board. When you present to a manager, her question (spoken or unspoken) will be "How does this idea, request, proposal, or project help me achieve my goals?" Do not ignore this fundamental truth, and don't fight it—volunteer the answer when you present. You will get better at this with practice and you will elevate yourself over those who do not.

Tactic: Know the goals at your level and at least two levels above. How can you offer an answer if you do not know the question? Understand the goals and then address them:

"This project supports the company's goal of total asset reduction."

"Over the expected life of this equipment the total installed cost (TIC) is 15% less than the current system. Conservatively, that amounts to a total savings of $2.3 million dollars over the next 5 years." You can see how this improves your chances of success.

Warning: Never exaggerate or lie; never.

Not knowing something but being willing to find the answer is acceptable. Know that once you are caught exaggerating or misleading, no one will ever listen to you or trust you again. You won't be told that. You just will become ineffective, and that is exactly as it should be. You may see others get away with it for a while; don't be tempted. Be more conceited than to stoop that low. 

2. Know your competition.

Those who are most successful know with whom they are competing. At the corporate level, companies compete for market share and public image with a goal of improved profit. The company's plants support those goals. Those plants, however, are in competition with each other. When the economy takes a downturn, corporate must decide where to cut back, choosing which plant(s) will curb production or take some downtime. The plants that suffer the most under those circumstances tend to be the highest cost producers within the company.

One way to reduce operating costs is through capital projects referred to as "opportunity projects." Safety and regulatory projects get approved on their own and have a lesser effect on relative costs. By contrast, opportunity projects require monetary justification. Whether your accountants use return on investment (ROI), internal rate of return (IRR), modified internal rate of return (MIRR), or any other such alphabet nomenclature, they all mean getting the "biggest bang for the buck."

The projects with the best numbers get funded; the others get postponed, often year after year after year. (Again, as it should be. Remember Number 1: we are a profit company.) Don't forget: Your project will affect the plant's asset depreciation expense, taxes, and loan payback burden.

This is an opportunity for us to improve our plant's relative position in the company. More projects with higher payback can get our plant a larger piece of the company's capital opportunity project pie, and that leads to a larger drop in our operating costs. How can we affect this situation? Look for the best cost-to-benefit ratio for our projects. Can I achieve 80% of the benefit for 20% of the cost? That would enable me to do five of these projects for the same dollar amount. Technology for technology's sake does not necessarily lead to more profit. Technology for a reduced total installed cost (TIC) can be a very good thing. Remember, you are competing with your sister plants for a fixed number of dollars.

3. Expect and prepare for skepticism.

Every plant manager knows one absolutely true fact: If all the projects completed to date saved the money claimed, we would be making our product for free. How is this possible? While a few projects just don't pan out, others often transfer the cost to another department.

Case in point: A pulp mill completed a quaternary cleaner project to reclaim chemicals that were going to the sewer with savings of approximately $50,000. The gotcha: The power plant was now spending an additional $50,000 in fuel evaporating the extra water. While not all cause and effects are this obvious, bottom-line numbers support the assessment.

Virtually all project approvers are skeptical of the numbers, and that is how it should be. It is specifically their job to question the numbers; otherwise, there is no point in having approvers. This is good news for us. Be proactive and anticipate the skepticism. Answer the questions before they are asked.

"My project will save $100,000 in chemical expense; however, it does incur a $30,000 increase in fuel costs for the power plant.

"Option 2 can satisfy the scope for 40% less capital; however, the increased annual maintenance costs that come with that option will exceed the savings in 2 years. After that we are losing money."

Corollary: No does not mean no, it means "not at this time." There are usually many more requests than the budget can fund. Managers must whittle down the list.

I had a plant-wide maintenance contract for computers and printers that ended close of business (COB) Friday. I had been negotiating a new contract with another firm that increased in plant service from three days to five days a week for less money. By the time legal had blessed the Ts and Cs (terms and conditions) and I could advance the purchase requisition (PR), it was the Thursday morning requisition approval meeting. My PR was rejected with no opportunity for discussion.

After the meeting I went straight into the plant manager's office to plead my case. As best as I can recall the manager's words were: "Not 'no,' but, 'hell, no.' Get out of my office and don't bring it up again."

You can see how many would view this as a negative. When I returned to my office, the would-be new account manager was on the phone asking if the representative should be transferred to our area. I said that no vendor had been chosen yet, but I expected a decision that day.

An hour later I returned to the plant manager's office, and the manager knew why I was there. (You don't become plant manager without a ton of common sense and insight.) I apologized for not doing my homework and blindsiding him with a large PR. It was a no-brainer to me. I was intimately familiar with all the details of the contractor change, and the plant manager was not. After explaining my request, I left the office with a signed PR.

Every manager must develop a method of dealing with the overload. My plant manager's method of thinning out the requests was a gruff, "no," then seeing who had enough conviction to come back again. 

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Anonymous , 01/05/15 04:26 PM:

One of the best articles I've ever read as a controls engineer.
Including Lambda Tuning.
Anonymous , 01/05/15 05:06 PM:

Excellent information that I read.
This kind of articles helps a lot of, that is thinking as a manager being a leader.
Phil , United States, 01/05/15 06:11 PM:

sometimes a PHB (no people skills) is in a position not because he produces results, but because he is the "student" who is managing the "class," and knows how to manipulate his manager well. if his budget is a small-enough part of his boss's budget, the Company (or at least his boss's organization) bears the cost of his ineptness.

in a controls class i took in school, the professor, who came from industry, was drawing a process diagram on the blackboard (yes, i'm that old), and it included a box that took input but had no output. i asked him what that box was, and he pointed out that every real process has parasitics. i have come to the realization that human organizations are processes, too, and many of their parasitics are human. in a very small organization, it is very hard for a parasite to survive, because everybody can see how he works, and he will often be forced out if there are no redeeming characteristics. in a larger organization, however, it is much easier for a parasitic to survive. and by the time U're as old as i am, U are certain to have experienced their harm.

just a thought.

thx, phil long
Anonymous , 01/05/15 10:24 PM:

Great advice not only for control engineers but also for many of us who report to managers.

Thank you for this reminder.
MUNIR , Non-US/Not Applicable, India, 02/13/15 02:20 PM:

excellant article for all discipline engineers for their career enhacement . As you climb organisation pyramid, the seven rules need to be followed all the while.
Chris , CA, United States, 12/05/16 07:10 PM:

I love this article. Real life information and humor in one stop.
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