1660238331618 Rhinehart

Use automatic control methods on devices and processes, but don’t try it at home

March 1, 2021
Use care when applying control principles to human relationships

When watching a show about daredevils, you've probably heard the announcer say, “Kids, don’t try this at home.” Perhaps a guy is going to skateboard off a roof and land in a pool, or another is going to run across several backyards hurdling the fences. The show's producers know those antics appeal to youngsters, who say “awesome!” and look forward to the occasional crash-and-burn, which is even more “awesome!”

The producers know some viewers might want to try it themselves, so to limit liability, the audience is told, “You're watching trained professionals. This is entertainment. Don’t try this at home without professional coaching and safety gear.”

Let’s consider control. We first understand the behavior of our processes, machines or devices. We understand what we want to respond (the controlled variable), what is the desired response (setpoint), how quickly it responds (time-constants), what we can change to make it respond (manipulated variable) and the amount of manipulation needed to achieve the desired response (gain). It doesn’t matter if it's a heat exchanger, an airplane’s yaw, an artificial heart or the national economy. The control approach is the same. Control is an effective tool to make inanimate things behave as we desire.

You can also use it on your pets and plants to make them behave and grow as desired.

By contrast, at home, there are often other humans—perhaps a spouse, children, other family members or roommates. At work, there are also humans—employees. They all have freewill, with their own personal desires and ambitions. They are not inanimate objects that are willing to be governed or steered by external physical or electrical pushes. In fact, they usually rebel against forced control by external agencies. You remember, I’ll bet.

But, as a responsible parent or partner, you need to help your children develop self-control (behaviors that lead to desirable outcomes during and after the childhood period); and you can also help your adult and professional partners with continuing personal development and actualization.

What I’ve learned is that I can't force the personal growth of others in the way I desire them to grow by manipulating or controlling as if they were inanimate objects. They rebel.

The message seems to be: use automatic control methods on devices and processes, but don’t try it at home. Don’t try it on your employees at work, either.

So, what can a responsible parent, partner or manager do? The Travis Tritt song says, “The weeds are high where corn don't grow.” You shouldn't let untended children become weeds, or let untended partners or employees stagnate in poor behaviors—or random-walk into new ones. If you don't continually tend the field, weeds take over.

What to do with humans? I think the answer has several parts. One action you can take to change people is to shape the environment, to influence and guide them into desired choices. Schools do this at each stage of development by creating student pride and allegiance to the new grown-up environment. The stories in popular songs and movies do this by revealing aspects of being human that can shape people’s choices. Following this control approach, help your charges understand how you want them to be with diverse messages (talks, presentations, posters, recognitions, slogans, etc).

A second approach is to love them. Create an environment that frees your human partners from the fears that would drive them back into their learned defense mechanisms. Create a safe environment that lets your human partners explore new behaviors without the fear of failure, criticism or ridicule.

Last, I need to reiterate the first principle of effective control. Understand the process. Since I’m a relative amateur with human behavior, I should enlist the process experts, psychologists and sociologists to help me understand human drivers, and define appropriate setpoints for context.

Understand the process and the context, then adjust the influences to make the process behave as desired. Actually, that was control! Automatic control, not about the math. Actually, maybe you can try it at home. Just don’t be reckless about it, and don’t treat humans as inanimate objects.

About the author: R. Russell Rhinehart
About the Author

R. Russell Rhinehart | Columnist

Russ Rhinehart started his career in the process industry. After 13 years and rising to engineering supervision, he transitioned to a 31-year academic career. Now “retired," he returns to coaching professionals through books, articles, short courses, and postings to his website at www.r3eda.com.

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