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Want to be a hero?

June 18, 2021
Sometimes the boss needs to hear optimization proposals in just the right way

This Control Talk column appeared in the June 2021 print edition of Control. To read more Control Talk columns click here or read the Control Talk blog here

Greg: In these days of tighter budgets and schedules, and greater emphasis on the bottom line by management with little or no interest in or understanding of process control, the approval and delivery of optimization projects is challenging at best. In the process industry—with the possible exception of refining and petrochemicals—it's difficult to even start a conversation with executives on process control and optimization. The need is greater than ever due to advances in software and instrumentation. The retirement of experts that know and can take advantage of the opportunities adds urgency.

We have an excellent practical, insightful and entertaining example from Michel Ruel, ISA Fellow and co-chair of the ISA 5.9 Technical Report on PID Algorithms and Performance. Here we have excerpts from “Want to be a hero? How to justify an optimization project and make it happen!”, a presentation given at an ISA conference earlier this year.

Michel sets up the scenario for us, the audience.

Michel: I need to convince my boss (the plant manager) to optimize an area to improve overall plant performance. My boss has a strong personality, a high opinion of himself. Always claims that this plant has the best performance. Boss hates Powerpoint, believes in hard numbers, and likes short meetings (15 min). I negotiated with his administrative assistant Victor (sweet talk + cappuccino + cheesecake!) to get a meeting. Boss is not an engineer nor a technician, more a bean counter but a clever one!

Hence, I need to get straight to the point, be prepared, use a short slide deck, and no technical words. For example, he hates hearing “control loop” and especially hates “advanced control,” so with him I stick to “control systems.” My boss must shine, he must see an advantage for himself.

Greg: Michel goes to his boss’s office and commences a dialog. Attitudes are noted in parentheses, which helps get a feel for the boss and understand the beneficial role played by Michel’s attitude.
Michel: Hello, boss (friendly).

Boss: Good afternoon Michel (gruff, coarse).

Michel: I have an idea that I developed with Denise, our production manager (calm).

Boss: We are the best. We outperform other plants. We have excellent numbers (assertive and seemingly against the idea).

Michel: Best is the enemy of good. I went to a seminar and learned the benefits of optimization (calm).

Boss: Another trend, blah, blah, blah! I prefer real stuff: dollars, profits, reducing manpower (argumentative)!

Michel: You're a shrewd manager, and you're a real leader, a doer. Your results are there to prove it. Can I have 15 minutes to present my idea (sweet)?

Boss: OK, 10 minutes! By the way, how did you convince Victor to allow you 30 minutes? You're a good salesman (chuckling and proud)!

Michel: No boss, just my charm + cappuccino + cheesecake! I also promised him that after 30 minutes, you'll be so interested that you'll postpone your other meetings (smiling)!

Boss: …Clock is ticking (impatient)!

Michel: I had a discussion with the production manager. I wanted to understand which areas could be improved, which areas could contribute to increased profits, where the risks are to our personnel, and where we could reduce greenhouse gases, raw material use and energy consumption (conscientious).

Boss: Good questions all, but…been there, done that (interrupting).

Michel: You promised 10 minutes! I had other questions, but Denise told me: “You know what? I know about optimization, and if we could reduce losses between grade changes, we could do better. Between certain grade changes, we lose between 55 and 65 minutes of production. This corresponds to around $30,000 per week. But if we can reduce this time, we can also reject less product. Less reprocessing, less manipulation means more sales—pure profit” (conscientious).

Boss: Can you prove what you claim? Can you put numbers in your nice story? Can you come back to me with a precise project that I can present to our head office (two great round eyes)?

Michel: Boss, I estimate we can reduce grade change time from 50 minutes to 25 minutes (sincere).

Boss: Why hasn't this been done before (skeptical)?

Michel: Because few managers and few engineers understand process control, but this is my bread and butter! I know a few simple tricks. For example, the settling time for a control system (if properly tuned) is 10 times the dead time (technical).

Boss: Michel I have no clue what dead time is. My understanding is that this conversation is dead time for me! And I have no clue what settling time is (angry, impatient)!

Michel: Do you have an intelligent cruise control in your car (inquisitive)?

Boss: Yes (inquisitive).

Michel: You see, intelligent cruise control is an example of adding features around a control system. The light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems and cameras send extra information to your cruise control, so it performs better (assertive)!

Boss: OK, I understand. Don’t tell me that you'll ask for fancy new programs that nobody will understand (opening up)?

Michel: What I suggest is to measure existing performance, optimize, measure new performance, compute profits, compute my bonus (confident, smiling).

Boss: Your WHAT (shouting)!?!

Michel: Boss, let me explain. If successful, this project will generate $15,000 of extra profit per week. You will shine, the production manager will shine, and I'd suggest a bonus of 50% of new profits over the next six months (smiling).

Boss: Are you CRAZY (shouting)!?!

Michel: No, I’m not crazy, just enthusiastic! OK, forget the 50% of extra profits over the next six months. I'll accept a big increase in my pay instead (smiling)!

Boss: Forget the bonus, forget the increase, for now. Put this on a standard form with all the numbers (calming).

Michel: Boss, it's already done. I just need your approval. I have a short presentation with all the numbers (talking quickly).

Boss: Michel, you already had my attention. But, as I understand it, you're now trying to present a Powerpoint—even if you call it a ‘’presentation.’’ Nice trick (interrupting)!

Michel: Boss, I had to try. Would you agree to a 10-slide Powerpoint—nothing fancy, no visual effects, plain as a financial report (Interrupting and smiling as boss views slides)?

Boss: Michel, I agree to let you execute the project. But you have three weeks to do it and three weeks to evaluate performance. You start next week. And, Michel always remember this adage: "Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan" (happy and excited).

Michel: Thank you, boss, for recognizing this project's potential. You won’t be disappointed (appreciative)!

Top Ten signs you are hero

10. Boss smiles at you
9. Boss invites you to an executive luncheon
8. Boss asks if there are more engineers like you
7. Boss asks you to play golf
6. Boss says good control isn’t bad
5. Boss asks what’s next
4. Boss gets subscription to Control magazine
3. Boss has ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career on desk
2. Boss gives you fist bump

1. Boss has picture of you on desk
About the author: Greg McMillan

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