Process Engineering: Learn from MadMen

The television series provides a lot of parallels with work at engineering firms.

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

“We’re gonna sit at our desks typing while the walls fall down around us because we’re the least important, most important thing there is here.” That’s a quote from Don Draper, the creative director at an advertising agency, who is the lead character of the television series "Mad Men," describing the creative department at the ad agency. This statement strikes me as applying equally well to process engineers at an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm.

When people get what they want, they realize how limited their goals were.

– Joan Holloway

Like the ad agency in "Mad Men," an EPC firm survives on salesmanship and original thinking — and often is one handshake away from success or failure. You’re only as good as your last idea. And that idea lives or dies on how you present it to the client. “Success comes from standing out, not fitting in,” counsels Draper. Original thinking is only part of success.

Lately, I’ve heard lots of bellyaching about clients not being able to answer our questions; I admit I’ve complained about it a few times myself. However, that’s why they come to EPC firms! Draper concisely summarizes the client’s point of view: “It’s your job. I give you money, you give me ideas.”

Winning contracts also is about meeting client expectations. “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be,” warns Draper. Too often, salespeople at an EPC firm think they know what their clients want but really don’t. We see them for their products, not the problems nagging their manufacturing: reliability, quality and regulatory compliance. We should strive to help them solve such underlying and, perhaps, unstated difficulties. To make that happen, the EPC firm must set itself apart by not only seeing where the client wants to go but also visualizing possibilities the client never imagined. “One good idea can win a client over,” advises Draper. A good example from "Mad Men" is Kodak’s wheel — Draper renamed it a carousel: “It’s a time machine…. it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Now, that’s a sales pitch! In our context, imagination means seeing the possibilities of a tank layout for improving maintenance access to key equipment — not waiting until the client brings it up.

Did I say meeting client’s expectations? I meant managing a client’s expectations. Once convinced of your expertise, a client is completely vulnerable. “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anybody,” confides Draper. This is an awesome challenge when a client realizes you’re the one who can solve its problems! Sometimes, you can promise too much, as ad agency account manager (salesman) Roger Sterling relates: “I told him it was a stupid idea, but they don’t always get our inflection.” Managing is important because resources are finite: “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had,” cautions Draper.

The truth is that all sales relationships are doomed to failure. Or, in the words of Sterling: “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” I wish someone could explain that to me: familiarity breeds contempt, a failure to meet the lofty promises of a sales pitch or, perhaps, the temptation of a sweeter deal? Maybe Joan Holloway, a partner at the ad agency, put her finger on it: “Sometimes when people get what they want, they realize how limited their goals were.”

EPC management must have a strategy for what to do when this relationship ends and how to gear up when business grows. Again, Draper offers insights: “There are snakes that go months without eating and then they catch something, but they’re so hungry that they suffocate while they’re eating…”

Instead, most EPC firms react reflexively, firing and hiring talent as business ebbs and flows. That’s okay — the engineers land elsewhere, perhaps at outfits with better planning.

Engineers should pay heed to another bit of Draper wisdom: “I have a life, and it only goes in one direction: forward.”


dirk.jpgDIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at dwillard@putman.net

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