Guest commentary: Seven habits of highly successful control engineers, part 2

A three-part examination by George Buckbee of ways control engineers can become more effective: This is part two of three.

By Control Engineering Staff March 3, 2009

Part one appeared in our January issue . This month, we look at habits three through five.

3: Document the baseline —If you don’t know where you started, how will you know how far you have come? I have seen people make this mistake many times through my career. Successful engineers always take time to understand the starting point, and the starting point should always be measured in business terms. You can supplement it with some technical measures, but you should always establish a good baseline of business metrics, such as those mentioned in habits one and two .

Discuss the baseline conditions with an operations manager or financial person to make sure that you understand what the numbers mean. This will also help ensure that you are working on the right things. Be sure that you use the exact same methods that your financial people use to measure these metrics. You need to adopt their language. If they measure profit in dollars per truckload, then you should, too. Technical measures are a good supplement, but only if they can be linked to the business metrics. For example, if you are trying to improve quality (let’s say, reduce the percentage of rejects), it may be a good idea to track a technical metric such as variability. But you will need to connect that to a business measure and show that reduced variability has a direct impact on reducing the amount of reject material with its associated cost.

4: Improve your effectiveness with the right tools —I admit, that as an engineer, I love to dig in to the details and use my engineering knowledge to sniff out the root cause of a problem. This is part intuition, part experience, and partly that basic engineering mindset. But if you love to solve problems, you can get caught up in the process and overlook much simpler ways to get the job done.

For example, people often ask how to find control loops that are performing poorly. You could go through the exercise of looking at each loop, analyzing it, and coming up with a list of the top 10 issues. If I did that, chances are the job would take a long time, because I would definitely get side-tracked into solving some related problems along the way.

To make this job go much faster, I use the control loop monitoring tools in PlantTriage .

Sometimes your own ego may slow you down, and you have to get it out of the way. All control engineers think they can tune loops quickly by hand and intuition. Quickly? Yes.

5: Communicate results and network —This is probably the most important of these seven habits. If you do great things, and nobody knows what was accomplished, you have lost. Networking is a critical part of this, and I’m talking about people, not computers. Make sure you have credibility with a wide array of people in your company, and that begins by thinking outside your normal workday routine. Set up lunch meetings with some of these people:

Plant IT manager;

Your counterparts in other departments;

The plant financial guru;

Instrument technicians;

Operations managers; and

Purchasing agents.

This will be a challenge at first. You may not feel you have much or anything to say to these other people, but they will respond if you ask about what they do and how your job relates. This helps you to develop stronger relationships in the plant, and the knowledge you gain from these other areas will be helpful as you communicate your results.

When you have some good results and you want to crow a little, you will need to communicate the information clearly, concisely, and in business terms. Remember the setting baselines discussion in habit three? Go back to those baseline measurements, and show how your work had a positive influence on the financial bottom line. Keep it simple: don’t write a 200-page report because nobody will read it. Instead, send a short email with “before and after” pictures and just a little bit of back-up material. The subject line of the email should be something like: “$120,000 savings on the de-chlorinator.” That email will be opened, read, and forwarded to others.

How much value can you bring? It certainly depends on your role, but with some effort, a typical control engineer should be able to document savings between 6 and 10 times his or her annual salary. This may come from any combination of the business results areas you compile as you do your baseline analysis. If you’re not sure how to document your value, visit some of the case study examples on our web site . They may give you some new ideas.

Read part three.

George Buckbee, P.E., is VP of marketing and product development for ExperTune. Reach him at .

—Edited by Peter Welander, process industries editor, , Process & Advanced Control Monthly eNewsletter Register here to select your choice of free eNewsletters .