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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(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.

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