Reliability & Maintenance

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

(Editor's Note: There is a figure that accompanies this article that can be downloaded via the "Download Now" button at the bottom of the page.)

Why, as engineers, do we treat ourselves differently than we treat our equipment? This is a question I asked myself repeatedly during the 18 years I spent as a plant engineer. While working at a production facility, I felt the equipment around me often “enjoyed” a better life than I did.

If that were true, what would a better life look like? Time and again I heard the grumbles rising from the cubicles around me. “I wish I had more free time to ...” To what? Attend more Little League games? Play more golf? Eat more dinners at home? Have a consistent workout schedule? Maybe even to enjoy a few more date nights?

More free time is the elusive cure to all that ails us. I know the first question you will be asking is, “How do I get more free time and still remain effective in my work?” Many of us have bought into the idea that longer hours on the job make us better employees. The truth is, working longer hours is not the answer – the solution is working more efficiently.

Take a good look at your plant equipment. What do you expect from it? It should work reliably, supply consistent output, be an asset to your company and provide a return on investment. This is not so different from what is expected from you as an engineer. Your company has invested time, training and salary developing your skills. In return, your supervisor expects to receive reliable and consistent engineering services.

Going back to our analogy, how do you keep plant equipment running efficiently?

First, you design for smooth operation. In the case of a pump, you design for laminar flow, thereby reducing turbulence whenever possible. You might install variable-frequency drives on conveyors to provide smooth ramping and continuous operation rather than start/stop loading. You watch for and manage conditions that cause excessive wear due to temperature, drag or simply extended use. Finally, you never underestimate the need for preventive maintenance. Engineers know far too well what happens to gear boxes or motor bearings that do not receive regular checkups.

You know how to get the most out of your equipment. How can you apply these methods to design a system that allows you to work at optimum performance?

Stop bandits in their tracks
Just like the equipment in your plant, you need to manage yourself for smooth operation. You should eliminate turbulence in your work day and reduce stop/start modes of operation. The first step toward this goal is to manage your daily interruptions.

Studies by industrial engineers show that the average workday interruption lasts seven minutes [1]. It then takes another three minutes to regroup and focus on the original work, resulting in a total of 10 minutes lost per interruption. Do the math: How many times a day are you interrupted? If you have six intrusions per day, then you lose one hour per day, or 20 hours per month (Figure). How many Little League games or date nights could you enjoy if you had an extra 20 hours per month?

Begin managing your workday interruptions by tracking them and you will find that the majority are not legitimate. The 80/20 rule applies – only 20% of interruptions are actually important enough to warrant the disruption to your work day. The remaining 80% are superfluous.

An interruption log will help you identify who comes to you legitimately and who is a time bandit. It will only take a couple of weeks of tracking to begin identifying trends, but you might be surprised by what you find. Who do you expect is responsible for the majority of your disruptions? Coworkers? Staff? Plant manager? Boss? Are you a victim of your own distractions? You know – trips to the vending machine, personal phone calls, surfing the Internet or visiting with co-workers. This information should also appear in your log. Remember, you cannot change what you don’t measure.

Keep a pad of paper near your work area to help manage your personal interruptions. As thoughts come up that might distract you, jot them down. If you need to call the Little League coach, jot it down. If you have to stop for milk on the way home or need a quote for car insurance, jot it down. If you write down these issues as they come up, it will bring closure to them for the moment and allow you to fully focus on the details of your engineering work.
On the same note pad, keep a list of people from whom you regularly need information. Record your questions for each individual as you work. This will allow you to stay focused so you can later ask your questions all at once. Not only will you be saving your own time, but you will also be respecting that of others by reducing the number of times you interrupt them.

Based on your interruption log, identify the people who interrupt you most during the day. These are your time bandits. You might suggest that they also make a list of questions to you throughout the day. If you schedule regular, 15-minute meetings with your high-level time bandits, it will make them feel you are interested in hearing their concerns while reducing the number of times they interrupt you each day.

You can further improve your engineering efficiency by reducing start/stop modes of operation. In your production facility, the plant makes the same product continuously, or in the longest possible batch runs, rather than switching between products throughout the day because it is more efficient. The same is true for engineering work; by grouping like tasks you can be four times more efficient than when working in start/stop mode [1].

Engineers have both technical and administrative duties, but some tasks fall into a gray area, such as scheduling, for example. You will need to classify such activities as either administrative or technical tasks. You might regard creating your personal weekly to-do list as administrative, whereas scheduling plant production might be considered technical work.

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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