Become a more efficient chemical plant employee

Plant employees aren't all that different from plant equipment. Both need to be efficient without being over-worked. This article details the things you can do to be more effective at your job.

By Sandy Baker, P.E., Exceedance

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Create a weekly schedule and allocate blocks of time for both technical and administrative work. Friday afternoon is a good time to develop your plan for the following week. Use a “block and tackle” approach – create blocks of time for like tasks, thereby enabling you to tackle them most efficiently.

Technical work should be done behind a closed door during a power-hour session. It is difficult for a plant engineer to be removed from the minute-by-minute firefighting of the front lines. However, sequestering yourself for an hour or two each day is very effective in moving toward the state of smooth operation.

You should forward your phone calls, turn off the pager and your e-mail alert, close your door and hang a sign that says, “Power hour in session – thank you for not interrupting.” The power hour concept works best if it is presented to coworkers, staff and managers before it is implemented. Most people will recognize that engineers and technical professionals need designated time to focus on the details of technical work. You, like the plant equipment, will focus most efficiently in a mode of continuous operation rather than start/stop.

Don’t let them wear you out
How you operate on a daily basis will determine how well you hold up in the long-term. Exposure to stress causes equipment to wear. But what can you do to reduce your daily stress level to keep yourself from wearing down?

Highly efficient engineers are not adrenaline-driven. They work the system without stress, having mastered the art of responding to upsets, rather than reacting, by creating a system that provides space for the unexpected. What does your schedule look like? Is there room for the unexpected?

Space in your workday is created by under-promising and over-delivering; you shouldn’t test your peak performance day after day. Unlike an electric motor, you don’t have a built-in means of overload protection to keep you from burning out. Your weekly schedule should not be fully booked – you can protect yourself by habitually building contingency into your work plan. The next time you are asked, “When can you get this done?” respond as if you were a motor. A motor doesn’t run at full-load amps all of the time and neither should you. Build in a safety factor by adding 10% or 20% to the delivery time – if it should take five days, say it will take six. If you deliver early, this will be a win for both you and your customer. After having reduced your committed output to a reasonable operating level, you will have the energy to respond to unexpected issues as they come up.

Get on track
Perhaps the single most important part of keeping any piece of equipment running is preventive maintenance. You are the most important piece of equipment you will ever have – what can you do to keep your motor running?

• Whenever possible, create a fixed work schedule. Set time boundaries around your workday so that weekends and evenings aren’t used as make-up time. Time-management strategies will help you manage yourself efficiently during the day and eliminate the need for weekend and evening work.

• Practice extreme self care. Get regular exercise, plenty of sleep and maintain a healthy diet. Spend more time doing what you love, whether that’s relaxing on holidays and vacations or having a regular massage.

• Develop personal and professional goals that align with your values. What do you really want to do with your life?

• Create enough space in your life to seize new opportunities that arise.

Because professional and personal responsibilities distract us, self-maintenance is not always a top priority. A professional coach teaches skills that make personal maintenance a habit. Many seminars, books and articles also have great ideas for new approaches to life, but action and implementation rarely occur without the ongoing support of a coach.

“The increase I’ve found in my productivity and the reduction in my stress levels has resulted in greater client approval, as well as more personal job satisfaction,” says Anne Blunden, project manager for Zero & Associates, Newport Beach, Calif., about her experience with a coach.

Coaching isn’t just for athletes anymore. Professionals, business owners, technicians, and, yes, even engineers are adding coaching to their lives. A coach will help you create an action plan for achieving your big-picture goals. “Just like going on safari, going through life can be a whole lot easier with a guide,” says Bob Gilbert, systems engineer, Novato, Calif. What do you want in your life? More time with your family? Greater financial success? To become a corporate vice president?

Once you determine your goals, each is assigned a time line, with long-term goals broken into steps that can be approached systematically. For example, if your long-term goal is to become a corporate vice president, then your 10-year goal might be to become plant manager, your five-year goal to be a department head, and one-year goal to exceed the expectations for your current position.

Your coach will encourage you to perform specific actions, or field work, that reinforces what you have learned during the coaching. Often these are simple measures that are worked into your normal day. For example, you might volunteer to take on additional tasks at work. Since coaching is about balance, it might also include treating yourself to something special during the week, such as a dinner with friends, quiet time over coffee, or attending that Little League game. Whatever field work you choose, your coach then holds you accountable for achieving those actions before the next appointment.

Because coaching is done over the telephone, meetings are flexible and convenient and can be done from anywhere. Regularly scheduled phone calls provide motivation and discipline for accomplishing actions while keeping your goals in sight. With a focus on balance of personal and professional life, your coach will reframe the current situation, providing a fresh approach to achieving goals.

We know that working like a machine is not the answer. We all want more free time to enjoy doing the things we really want to do. You can get there by operating smoothly, reducing wear and performing regular personal maintenance.

Sandy Baker, P.E., is a professional coach for Exceedance, Davis, Calif., a company that helps engineers and other technical personnel achieve their professional goals while enriching their personal lives. She is a mechanical engineer with 18 years of experience in industry. E-mail her at

1. McNalis, S. and M. Powers, “Guide to Time Management Systems,” Successful Professionals LLC with Atticus Inc., Santa Fe, N.M. (2004).

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