Lessons from the Plant Floor

Recently, I started a new job that has taken my career in an unexpected direction. What had been a rather traditional path of production engineering and manufacturing management has taken a turn toward global supply strategy. Instead of fighting metaphorical fires on the plant floor, I am now developing recommendations to guide the company’s long-term strategy.

Move beyond your comfort zone

While manufacturing is my passion, two pieces of advice pushed me to move beyond my comfort zone. First, if the job begins to feel comfortable, it is time to move on. I had gotten to know my plant and felt confident that I could solve even the most difficult problems. While my team benefited from my expertise, no doubt fresh eyes and perspective will fix some flaws that I had become blind to. Second, be open to jobs outside your obvious path. Each new position is a stepping stone in your career. Taking a step outside the obvious path will either validate your current path or help you to find a new one.

Interestingly, working in manufacturing was not an intuitive path for me. While the work is technical, it requires people skills that did not necessarily come naturally to me. Initially, I had plenty of rough days in the plant that left me feeling defeated, but now I feel I have achieved some mastery — a comforting thought considering the challenges I will surely encounter in my new position. As I take on this new role, reflecting on my career thus far has revealed some lessons that have helped me, and hopefully will also help you.

Get to know people first, technology second

As an admittedly awkward engineer, I made this mistake in every way possible. For example, I would sit in the control rooms with the intention of getting to know the operators and end up asking them about their jobs and the equipment.

Regardless of how automated technology becomes, plants continue to run because of the people who monitor and take care of them. While operators and maintenance personnel offer a huge wealth of knowledge and expertise, they are also people with families, hobbies, and lives outside the plant walls. No matter your position, spend time with plant personnel to learn about them as individuals, not just as knowledgeable employees. This is key to earning respect, which is essential to long-term success.

Don’t try to engineer from your desk

A problem was once brought to my attention at the end of a long week of long days. A tote had arrived that the employee had never seen before, and they did not understand what connection was needed. From my office, I listened to them describe the tote and the strange fittings. We spent an hour looking up videos and searching the internet for specialized connections for these new totes. After an hour of futility, we gave up. The next morning, I went to look at the container. It turned out this tote was not new to me and I knew exactly how to handle it.

No matter how often I have been in an area of the plant or encountered a problem, it is always valuable to go physically look at it again. The same is true when working on projects. Get your steel toes on and take a look in the field, not just at the piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs). Consult the people who work in the area and ask them about how they use the equipment. Talk to the maintenance people and ask them how they install the equipment, what they need to improve performance, or how troubleshooting could be made easier. Whether you have worked in a facility for two months or 20 years, you will not regret a trip to the plant floor.

The cause of the problem is often simple

We might all roll our eyes, but your IT department often suggests restarting your computer first because the solution to the problem is typically simpler than we imagine. For example, I once spent hours looking for different root causes of a false level measurement on a tank. The transmitter was putting out a normal reading, so we did not think it had failed. After hours of troubleshooting, I asked the instrumentation team to replace what we believed to be a functioning level transmitter as a last-ditch effort before having to shut the tank down to go inside and investigate. When the instrumentation team loosened the screws to take it off, the transmitter started reading again — it turns out the screws were just on too tight.

My lessons from the plant floor might not immediately seem to translate to my new, very different office role. But, as I settle into this position, I can see the broad value in getting to know my network personally, taking the time to gather information, and identifying the simplest solution.

This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column in the May 2021 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at www.aiche.org/cep.