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.
By Bruce Slade December 24, 2014

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. 

4. Never be negative, never.

Always think, act, and speak in the positive. A positive attitude is contagious and creates an atmosphere of approval. Any negativity will cause people to back away, not wanting to be part of anything you propose. Two examples follow. Translate them into plant politics.

Example 1: Three boys ask out Joyce. Bruce compliments her, tells her he likes her, and asks her to go to a movie. Larry tells her how much he hates Mary, how Mary is stuck-up and obsessed with cats. He asks Joyce to go to the movie. Mark asks, "You don’t want to go to the movie with me, do you?" Guess who Joyce chose.

Example 2: A military instructor noticed a particularly unkempt soldier in the class. Prior to starting the instruction the soldier was scolded for poorly shined shoes, trousers that were wrinkled and not properly bloused, and a cap that sported numerous oil stains. The instructor then began the lesson, but no one in the room was interested. Class rapport was destroyed, even though most students agreed the unkempt soldier deserved some form of correction.

If there’s a problem with another department, remember that your peers face the same challenge. This is an opportunity to excel. Develop a method to navigate through the obstacle better than your peers. Remember, you don’t have to outrun the bear; you only have to outrun the guy next to you. Think bigger raises and earlier promotion; you will have earned it. 

5. Play nice in the sandbox.

Learn to put teamwork and group harmony first. Task oriented vs. people oriented: there is no reason for these to be mutually exclusive. Right out-of-the-box I am totally task oriented, almost to the point of "Drag the body off the field and run the next play." (Hey, I said almost.) Ten horses pulling in the same direction can move a very heavy wagon. Ten horses pulling in different directions can barely move at all (and if they do move, there’s a 50-50 chance they will move in the wrong direction). Had I learned this earlier in my career, many of you would be working for me today. I am not saying to downplay task orientation; remember the need to perform.

What I am saying is that how you travel is just as important as getting there. Managers’ plates are already overflowing. They do not need more problems. Any conflict or controversy becomes a distraction.

Will my project add a huge maintenance burden to an overworked, understaffed maintenance crew? How can I engineer it to reduce mean time to repair (MTTR)? How can I configure my HMI to reduce operator stress? Did I talk with our insurance company to see if I can reduce our insurance rate by incorporating some of its suggestions? Can a synergy be developed between my project and other projects (shared resources, simultaneous shutdowns, etc.)?

It’s true. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Anticipate potential problems and learn to be a problem solver. 

6. Think outside the box.

Yes, thinking out of the box is often recommended, but you do need to be creative and not accept sacred cow taboos as absolute.

A finishing and shipping department had the worst morale of any department in a very large corporation. If the department brought in a new superintendent, it was probable the new person would fail. The process control superintendent was moved over to fix the department so the company could then hire someone who could succeed. The message: "There is no money to be made in this operation; it was merely an expense." Was this move a:

A) Vote of confidence?

B) Way to get rid of the superintendent (who on occasion could be a pain in the neck)?

C) Test to determine A or B?

The former finishing and shipping superintendent had been fired for lying in a grievance hearing, the supervisors had been treated like clerks, and one department member could not say the company name in a sentence without using at least two four-letter words. Having only managed control engineers, the temporary superintendent saw this as a welcomed relief.

By delegating authority, the supervisors were involved in all management meetings. Within a year they were handling first-level disciplinary hearings and making leadership committee presentations without help. The notorious bad-attitude employee, let’s call him Wayne, was a walking violation of every one of these principles. It was discovered he really cared about the department. He had been making suggestions for improvements for years, and no one would listen (ergo blank-blank company, blank-blank management). He was pulled off shift, and he conducted tool box meetings collecting best operating practices from the entire department, having each shift review and improve upon other shifts’ suggestions. Imagine him complaining about employee attitudes he had exhibited just 6 months earlier. His suggestions were implemented. Attrition and eliminating vacant positions reduced the staffing from 24 to 19 persons per shift. Shipping increased from 1,350 tons/day to 1,650. Customer complaints dropped from $0.03/$100 sales to less than $0.005. First-aid cases dropped 44%. Controllable overtime dropped 38%. All that saved $2.6 million per year, in a department with no potential for savings. After finishing the tool box sessions, Wayne was used as a fill-in/setup foreman. A new superintendent was hired after only 18 months. Wayne accepted the foreman position full-time 6 months later.

This had been a department with an ineffective manager and a disruptive employee as the leader. The department healed itself. The temporary superintendent merely regained the leadership, listened to the employees, and delegated authority. (You can delegate authority but you cannot delegate responsibility.) The superintendent considered the advice from outside the department, but made independent assessment and decisions. Plant management initially resisted many of this person’s changes and methods as being too far outside the box.

To effectively think outside the box, you must know your strengths and weaknesses, have an appropriate level of self-confidence, and be able to sell your idea. If you can’t sell your idea, you are wasting everyone’s time, including your own. 

7. Think like a manager, and develop as a leader.

You should stop growing the day after you die, not a minute before. Here are 10 ways to think like a manager and develop as a leader:

a. Well-managed companies try to maximize profit over the entire business cycle, not just the short term. Short term may appear wrong at lower levels.

b. If you can’t measure it, it’s not provable.

c. Profit and capitalism are very, very good-not bad.

d. Very few buy stock for the sake of producing a product. Stock is bought for return, like your individual retirement account (IRA).

e. Bankrupt companies pay no wages and no taxes.

f. If you can’t sell it, you are ineffective.

g. Only you will fight for your jobs, so be your own advocate.

h. There is only so much money to go around, so when you don’t get everything, do not take it personally. Try again next year and remember Number 3.

i. Never buy serial number 1. (Corollary: Only load odd-numbered releases.)

j. Override your first tendency if you’re now thinking: "I should hide this article from the rest of my department." That would be a natural corollary to Number 2: Know your competition. I encourage you to put that aside and more strongly consider Number 5: Play nice in the sandbox. Why 5 over 2? Because when you start caring about the development of those around you, when you become a resource and help others in your plant, you are thinking like a manger and developing as a leader (number 7).

I doubt there is anything in this article you haven’t heard before. It’s good to step back once in a while, see some examples, and refocus on advice to help advance your career goals today. That’s a more detailed way of saying what Dad always told me: "When you are up to your navel (paraphrased) in alligators, it is hard to remember your primary objective is to drain the swamp."

– Bruce Slade, PE, is the president/owner of Byte Size, a process automation and process safety consulting firm; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

Key concepts

  • Control engineers need to know 7 key points about management.
  • Strategies, tactics, and examples can help when resources are unavailable.
  • Leaders may be able to manage; managers don’t have to lead.

Consider this

Which of these seven points of advice can you apply today to help advance your career?

ONLINE extra

7 things noncontrol people should know about control engineers

Learn how the basic differences between control engineers and others in the plant can hinder progress toward optimization. Start a conversation to improve communications and controls. See examples and career advice. 

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