Deftly Deal With Plant Floor Politics

Take concrete steps to effectively work with production people

By Dirk Willard, Contributing Editor

A rookie mistake — that’s what I call it in retrospect. Corporate had sent me to the plant to find out why its dryers were operating so poorly. Following my walkthrough, the operators complained extensively about burnt and wet flakes. I assured them I was there to solve all their problems. How naïve — their issues largely stemmed from mismanagement. The technical ideas I came up with largely duplicated those already recommended by other engineers and managers. The operators and foreman clammed up. To production management, I was a threat. To operators, I was a tired joke. Where did I go wrong?

Production management resent the interference of an outsider.

It’s not easy for an outside engineer to work smoothly with production or maintenance staff. The first rule for succeeding with operators is to listen, not talk — most of all, don’t promise anything, at least in the beginning. Ask a lot of questions. Write everything down in a spreadsheet file; cross things out as you determine they’re inaccurate or false. You’ll need to amass several dozen observations to write a factual report.

Outside engineers usually invade the happy community of a production plant for one of two reasons: 1) commissioning or troubleshooting; or 2) doing survey work for an expansion. In the first situation, your presence signals that plant personnel can’t do the work themselves; expect resentment — and sometimes even sabotage — from management. Don’t be deluded into thinking you’re in charge; your position of power is illusory. In the second circumstance, you need staff input to produce a report. However, people on site may not willingly cooperate. So, be sneaky, prepare to dig.

Recently, I was asked to estimate the capacity of downstream equipment in a pulp-and-paper operation. I previously had written a report on the cooking and pressing part of the process upstream. The downstream batch process was complicated and its instrumentation was poor. Worse yet, the process still was evolving and wasn’t fully understood.

My first step was to define the process in a drawing. I developed a pictograph that showed the types of instruments. The second step was to translate the instruments’ output, such as % of maximum speed of equipment motors, in more useful terms for a material balance; this required a number of hydraulic tests with pumps verified by timed level measurements. Once these data were collected, I started running trial material balances on the system. These took three hard weeks. Eventually, I knew what to look for and how to measure it. In the end, I had to add pressure gauges and hydraulically model the equipment pressure drops. This study involved several discussions with operators.

Some in production management resent the interference of an outsider. I don’t let this stop me. I’ve learned to watch where operators enter data and then ask for access; the operators don’t know if management has given me permission but they do know they’re supposed to cooperate. I once spent a week digging through old operator logs in a dusty closet; I worked after hours to avoid a superintendent.

Some operators will complain loudly about problems they can’t solve. I take notes. I promise to contact the right person in management after writing a short report but I don’t promise results. I don’t get emotionally involved; that’s not the job. When writing a report like this, make sure you define some economically viable solutions and provide an estimate of the cost for doing nothing. That may even make friends out of enemies among the managers — but maybe not.

As for survey work, take care to define your responsibilities. At the very least, you should aim to understand the process as well as the operators. Write a short description of the process if that helps.

You should include all maintenance improvements that fall within the scope of the project. However, don’t get sidetracked. Usually, you’re not there to do a broader maintenance study. Once, I was asked merely to increase the capacity of an 18-head reactor piston pump. An old Navy boiler man who maintained it convinced me that pump failure was imminent. I conspired to bring in the pump vendor’s technical service vice president: he warned managers that a disaster was awaiting them. So, I was given an additional assignment — one I didn’t want.

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

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