Perspectives: Field Notes

Work to build coalitions with difficult teams

Managing feuds is the first step toward a successful project, according to Senior Editor Dirk Willard in his monthly installment of Chemical Processing's Field Notes column.

By Dirk Willard, senior editor

“If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.” – John W. Gardner. This was certainly true for this bunch, I told myself. I finally had the buy-in for a project scope from maintenance, instrumentation, quality assurance, validation, production, environmental and safety. As a contractor at a pharmaceutical company, I had no authority over my “team” and no control over the feuds between them. How did I get them to put aside their differences to cooperate on a team? By employing several tricks I learned from a lifetime of such experiences.

First, never try winning approval in committee; discuss the matter, alone in the quiet of their office where they feel at ease. The committee meeting should be all smiles, with the occasional bared teeth — a formality. In their offices, their “comfort zone,” listen to their concerns and write them down; you will want to compare notes later. Change the plan if it will avoid conflict. When you’re there, keep an open mind and try to remember all the valuable lessons in Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” If you haven’t taken this text to heart, you are missing a great opportunity to understand human beings. Three important lessons are crucial: “learning to walk in the other person’s shoes,” letting people uncork their ideas — to vent, and finding out what the customer really wants. Sometimes, the original scope gets so muddled that this process can go on for months.

Second, fully communicate every change — be transparent. You want to be the conduit for information, not become embroiled in turf battles between individuals. Nor do you want them to gang up on you! Some of the best tools for rapidly dispersing ideas are the company e-mail and Powerpoint. Draw up simple plan (flat) and elevation (profile) drawings of the new and old layout. Distribute them, with the scope memorandum, before individually meeting each person. Be careful to run any drawings by the designers. Usually, they will have their own spin on how the information is presented. Also, if other engineers’ projects may be affected by yours, check with them.

Follow through: it may take several meetings with individuals before you have their acceptance. Also, check with your boss; he may not like the changes and want you to re-negotiate, especially if costs or delivery are affected. When an alteration runs into budget or schedule constraints, re-negotiate a buy-in between the parties. Despite the advantages of the Internet, this can’t be accomplished effectively except — face-to-face. When I was re-designing a cubical in research, I brought a scale-drawing with the equipment scaled to match: pumps, columns, the 1,500-gallon vessel, etc. I let each individual play with several different arrangements until we had a consensus.

Be prepared: you may never get your “team” primed for accepting the scope again. Make sure that final drawings are prepared, the scope has been proofread and that the budget is prepared and approved. Identify where changes were made, and who made them, if it will be helpful; if this will only stir up trouble, carefully step over this sleeping dog. Chances are your team will know who suggested the change. Organize for the meeting in the same way in which a lawyer prepares for cross-examination: know the team and plan answers to their concerns.

Sometimes a fight is unavoidable, so be prepared! One prickly production manager seemed to live for disagreement. He seemed to enjoy watching project engineers squirm by making last-minute changes. I found it best to agree with him on some general changes (another Dale Carnegie approach) — we thrashed out the details right there. Nothing kills a discussion like “No.” Of course, this can mean more delays, but not if handled carefully. It is usually a good idea to leave a little fat in your budget for just such an occurrence. One method to avoid trouble at the meeting is to invite the troublemaker’s boss to the meeting: nobody looks good beating up people in front of the guy who signs their paycheck.

Avoid trying the obvious solution — getting rid of the troublemaker. Even if you succeed, you will hurt your reputation or make an enemy. Face the problem, who knows you may find a new friend. The best method to win a fight is by reminding everyone of the value of the project — this is usually the best way to gain support. Encouraging people to respond to the better angels of their natures is the best way to assure that your project is completed on time. By applying these tricks, I had a 90% approval rate during my stint at the pharmaceutical company.

More from this perspective...

Title

Heat Exchangers -- Keep Out of Hot Water

Some simple steps can ease heat exchanger commissioning.

02/03/2011

Head Off Hydrogen Hazards

Proper material selection and piping design are crucial

05/05/2014

Get Your Head Around Shutoff Head

Specifying control valves that may need to provide tight cutoff requires care

08/20/2014

Get Pipe Specifications Right in the Beginning!

Good pipe specifications can avoid costly and dangerous mistakes

08/08/2008

Finding The True Cost of Data-Collecting Equipment -- Can You Really Afford It?

Consider all costs before you opt to install an instrument.

12/15/2008

Fight Over-Confidence

Most people aren’t as good as they think at their jobs.

06/21/2012

Field Notes: Strive for a Surveyor’s Eye

Surveying and drafting skills can pay off for process people.

09/02/2009

Field Notes: Gun For Better Troubleshooting

Surface temperature measurements often can provide valuable insights.

09/11/2013

Field Notes: Don't Know Much Geometry

The cornerstones of chemical engineering are often overlooked. Teaching theory to operators is crucial to safe operations, says Dirk Williard in his monthly Field Notes column.

04/12/2006

Expand Your Plant Not Your Problems

Careful project planning and good communications with vendors can avoid hassles.

05/10/2010

Equipment Maintenance: Savor Statistics

It can help you uncover important insights from your data

08/06/2014

Electives can contribute significantly to professional growth

Taking electives can help you broaden your skills, says Dirk Willard, in this month's Field Notes installment.

07/24/2007

Ease Packed-Column Commissioning

A few steps can avoid problems when starting up a tower filled with random packing.

12/27/2012

Don’t let a start-up finish you off

Senior Editor Dirk Willard spent years as a "start-up" engineer. He advises that proper planning is crucial for achieving a happy ending.

01/24/2006

Don’t get zapped by spark testing

Understand the intricacies of checking for defects in a liner, advises Dirk Willard, contributing editor, in this month's Field Notes column.

08/28/2007

Don’t Gamble With LOTO

Develop a common-sense plan for lockout/tagout.

10/12/2009

Don’t Be the Hub of a Wheel

Successful ‘green-field’ site start-ups depend on developing a team, says Senior Editor Dirk Willard.

08/17/2006

Don't Zone Out On Area Classifications

Electrical ratings must start with analysis of chemicals present.

04/06/2011

Don't Push the Envelope

Take a sensible approach to avoid ignition dangers.

05/05/2011

Don't Let Design Errors Doom Your Project

Engineering quality assurance demands more attention than it usually gets.

04/16/2009