Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other

A Dialog Across the Generations About Plant Operations and Each Generation's Different Ways of Looking at Problems

By Danaca Jordan, Greg McMillan, Soundar Ramchandran, Hunter Vegas

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Soundar: The questions that need to be answered in terms of doing a better job in process control for improving existing systems as well as executing new projects in a timely and useful are these:

  • What is it that we are trying to accomplish?
  • How will it impact the bottom line?
  • When and how will the impact be realized?
  • Why is it important to do this?

The biggest challenge I see is that most of the time we start the dialog with the "Why is it important to do something" question. While it is important to know the answer to this question in a deep and fundamental sense, it becomes a distraction, as the conclusion and recommendation is not obvious in the "why." Working the details of any problem should lead to a conclusion or a recommendation. It is the conclusion or recommendation, the ultimate result from the scientific analysis, which is more important than the mechanics of analysis itself. Most of us miss this and get mired in "teaching the science" to the decision-makers. This is the fundamental reason for failure of many communications; it fails to achieve the desired outcome and leaves both parties disappointed.

Greg: What are some key mutually beneficial features of a mentoring program that could be set up within a plant or company?

Danaca: The first hurdle for any mentoring program is setting expectations for the parties involved. Time is extremely valuable to both parties, and agreed-upon rules for when and how to communicate, formality, timeframe and goals is key to ensuring that neither party's time is squandered. I would be frustrated with a mentor who never returned emails, just as some mentors would prefer to hold scheduled sessions with predetermined agendas.

A great mentoring program will involve peer mentoring as well as more traditional cross-generation relationships. Peers are great sounding boards, often have similar issues and are easier to approach than the esteemed experts in the field. As demonstrated during my ISA mentorship, mentoring a group of peers together can foster this interaction, as we now have shared experiences and known interests. For example, I know I can go to my fellow Hector for questions on using advanced PID features and only involve our mentor as needed.

Hunter: It has been my experience that the best mentoring relationships occur when the engineers work together as part of a team, rather than setting up a formal program where an engineering new hire meets with his mentor on an intermittent basis. Engineers learn by doing, and if a younger and an older engineer work together, there is much more opportunity for the young engineer to see and understand the hundreds of design decisions that must be made during a project. At the same time, the older engineer is developing a valuable team member who can contribute to the success of the project. Formal mentoring programs are okay, but I would strongly suggest that, if at all possible, the company try to pair older and younger engineers together in a working relationship.

Soundar: A mentoring program within a plant or a company should focus on educating and coaching how to make the upcoming generations successful. Newer generations need coaching on how to sell their ideas and thoughts to their supervisors and leaders. As corporations tend to be hierarchical like family structures, it is more than likely that a majority of the leaders may be from a previous generation. In a typical corporate or plant structure today, it is highly likely that the president and his staff and the senior management will be from the Boomer generation, whereas the middle management has a greater percentage of Gen X and the first-line leaders, and their staff comprises of mostly Millennials.

Exposing the Millennials to the way of thinking and value system of the Boomers and Gen X would increase the ability for all of these generations to understand each other better and enable companies to benefit from the new ideas and technological innovations that are happening in the present time. Empowering Millennials will produce innovative solutions to problems that were once considered as "cost of doing business."

Mentoring is a two-way street; both the protégé and mentor have to be invested. The mentor sees value for the time they spend on the protégé, and protégé should take advantage of the opportunity as a means to gain valuable knowledge from the experience that someone is willing to share. I have found that experience is the hardest thing to explain to a younger generation. In as much as we say that the value system changes from generation to generation, I find that the difference is only in the dynamics of the response. The steady-state gain for the values has not changed much from generation to generation.

Greg:  What are some ways of gaining recognition and advancement besides doing your job well?

Danaca: From what I read and see at my office, this is one of the larger areas of misunderstanding between generations. Millennials like me are often labeled as entitled because we tend to expect immediate feedback on our efforts. Some experts propose that our parents caused this by praising our every accomplishment, including just participation. I doubt that was the only influence, but since I am an engineer rather than a social scientist, I will not attempt to explain how these tendencies started. I will say that we are perpetuating the trend long after we move out.

The extent of social media use may be responsible for some of the disconnect between generations here and elsewhere. On Reddit, for example, a user can post a picture, story, news piece or observation. It is immediately up or down voted by the community. In addition, other users can comment on the submission, and the comments receive ratings. Even sub-comments about the original comments are voted on, with only the best rising to the ephemeral Front Page. If something is ignored, it soon disappears. People will spend hours working or risk limbs for a brief acknowledgement with no thought of money or reward.

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