1660263906225 Petediffleyvtscadaarticle

‘Mission critical’ applies to team performance, too

April 27, 2022

“Mission critical is a thought process.” Pete Diffley, global partnerships leader for VTScada by Trihedral shared his perspective on how mission-critical thinking can be applied to building not only more resilient systems but the teams responsible for running them. 

The term “mission critical” often conjures images of space flight—Apollo 13 or the Challenger space shuttle—where a system malfunction rapidly escalates into spectacular, irreversible failures and even the loss of life and limb. Today, however, mission critical is also applied to the systems essential to a business or other organization, and whose failure can bring activities such as manufacturing operations to an abrupt standstill.

But for Pete Diffley, a long-time veteran of industry’s front lines—from electronics enclosures on pharmaceutical packaging units to operator consoles in water treatment facilities—we in industry sometimes don’t apply the term as thoroughly as we could. “We have a DCS running the plant, and we appreciate that we should avoid shutting down, but sometimes that’s about it,” Diffley began in his presentation, “A Mission Critical Mindset,” at VTScadaFest 2022.

“Take the simple carabiner,” Diffley said, “it’s a small, simple component—but if you’re the mountain climber whose falling weight it has to support, do you really want to go another 30 feet before you anchor another?” A carabiner may be a small component, but it’s still mission critical—and how its function is reinforced and supported by other system components is what makes the difference between a mission-critical system that’s resilient, that can endure a component failure and continue to operate.

“Mission critical is a thought process,” Diffley, continued. “And that thought process applies just as much to building teams of people responsible for running your mission critical systems as it does to building the systems themselves.”

Learnings from Mission Control

Diffley then flashed Powerpoint slide images of Dr. Preston Cline, co-founder and director of research and education for the Mission Critical Team Institute and Holly Ridings, NASA’s first female chief flight director, appointed in 2018. “The pair were featured in a fascinating Audible podcast on the topic of mission-critical teams, some of which I’ll share with you here,” he said.

One of the first lessons about building a mission critical team is that the person who sees a fire and runs toward it is likely not your best first choice for team leader. “This has nothing to do with fire officers,” Diffley quickly qualified. “But someone who runs into a fire without thinking, is just as likely to freeze when it comes to what’s next.”

Instead, choosing a team leader starts with trust and competence. “You want someone who can stay calm when the water is up to their chin,” Diffley said. “It's also important to remember that in a crisis, the next best action is often not popular,” he added. And that’s where trust in the team leader can make all the difference.

When getting operations back up and running quickly is of paramount importance, a “divide and conquer” among the most likely root causes is most effective. Don’t go with the team member who just “wants to rule something out,” Diffley said. “The way you identify risks is also important.”

And, like too many cooks can spoil the broth, too many team members can derail a fast and effective recovery. Concluded Diffley, “A small, competent team is often best.”

About the author: Keith Larson
About the Author

Keith Larson | Group Publisher

Keith Larson is group publisher responsible for Endeavor Business Media's Industrial Processing group, including Automation World, Chemical Processing, Control, Control Design, Food Processing, Pharma Manufacturing, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Processing and The Journal.