Contenders or Pretenders?

Both Leaders and Followers Need to Cultivate Their Skills to Create a Successful Process Automation Environment

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By Dan Hebert

In today’s flat world, process industry firms have access to the same equipment and the same automation hardware and software, similar external engineering and system integration resources, and capital at comparable costs.

Given all these similarities, what separates the winners from the losers? Management—more specifically process engineering and automation management. But because management is a two-way street, and because even the best managers can be thwarted by incompetent or uncooperative subordinates, there’s a second key determinant of success.

That would be those subordinates and their relationships with their managers. It’s easy to blame management for all problems, but, in reality, all employees have a part to play.

What determines good management and good manager/subordinate relationships? Textbook definitions are useful, but often trite. The real answers come from people just like you, the managers and subordinates working in process industry firms.

What Makes a Good Manager?

The essential traits for a good process automation manager come by the dozens, but number one on most lists is technical acumen. “Managers must truly understand what automation employees do from a technical standpoint,” observes Dale Evely PE, principal engineer I&C at Southern Co. in Birmingham, Ala. “Not understanding causes employee dissatisfaction because commitments are made to customers that can’t be met properly.”

Managers must be strong technically to see the big picture. “Managers must understand the entire system and how it affects different parts of the plant as well as the business,” comments Gary Crenshaw, corporate engineer at Beam Global Spirits and Wine in Clermont, Ky. “They must keep up to date with current technology and have plans for obsolescence,” he continues.

Richard McCormick, automation engineer with Mick Automation in Levis, Quebec, an industry consultant with extensive plant operations experience, sees things the same way. “A strong technical background is mandatory, and this background should cover the site’s automation system specifics as much as possible. One simply can’t manage highly technical resources efficiently without knowing and understanding what they’re doing on a daily basis,” emphasizes McCormick.

Monitoring Progress
Managers must observe and monitor the progress of their employees, but they need to let them accomplish tasks independently.
Courtesy of Rockwell Automation.
Shared technical competency among managers and subordinates creates an environment where mutual respect can flourish. “If the employees that work under you believe that you’re technically capable, they then value your opinion and believe that you’re making valid suggestions,” notes Darren Pillay, MES consultant with Sasol Technology in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“As a manager, you must understand the technical capabilities of other employees. Understanding their technical weaknesses and strengths enables an automation manger to select the best person for the intended work package,” observes Pillay.

Chaos reigns when managers don’t understand the technology. “Managers must understand, document, and enforce the operational philosophy of the plant,” emphasizes Jeff Waufle, IT technical services supervisor for the Las Vegas Valley Water District. “Well-meaning staff will constantly try to bend the philosophy by introducing improvements. Strong technical management of change policy will help keep automated processes true to the original intent.”

Talk To Me

In addition to technical acumen, process automation managers need great communication skills, and employ them at multiple levels. First, managers must communicate effectively and often with their subordinates. Second, they must be able to convince their superiors in senior management that automation can deliver tangible business benefits. Third, they must negotiate with other peer-level managers on items such as resource needs.

“Managers must be able to articulate process control needs and value to customers, and they must motivate engineers to focus on end results instead of what seems cool,” observes Dan Cox, director of manufacturing systems at AOC Resins in Collierville, Tenn., summing up the importance of communication skills up and down the managerial chain.

“Managers must be able to relate an automation process in laymen’s terms to the customer and/or the end user,” says Pete Atkinson, an MIS engineer with Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica in St. Joseph, Mo.  Speaking to less technically astute folks is something automation managers need to do every day, and this requires important communication skills such as empathy, patience and understanding.

The traditional boss/subordinate role is between an engineering manager and a technical professional, but perhaps a more important indirect supervisory relationship exists between technical professionals and plant operators. The best process automation system in the world can be rendered ineffective pretty quickly if plant operators aren’t on board.

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