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The Engineer as Plant Manager

"All things being equal, if you had to choose between an engineer with highly trained technical competence but only average ability to motivate and manage people and an engineer of only average technical ability but with superb abilities to motivate and organize people, who would you choose to manage one of your plants?"

After an ambitious six year cultural change effort involving a number of nitrogen plants spread over the United States and overseas, one engineer CEO did not hesitate: "Before I started this cultural change business, I had a number of technically superior engineers running my plants; frankly, they were not doing well; reliability was either going down or operating at unsatisfactory levels. I realized that I didn't really understand this process of "people change" all that well myself. I learned that the culture of a plant was a system. Like any mechanical system, it had logic and was open to intervention and change. I had to face the fact that most engineer-managers don't understand that human process is a system open to direct intervention.

Looking back over this six year period, he said, "When I could get my technically trained people to come on board in seeing cultural change in their plants as a process, a process that can and needs to be managed and; when they understood that people function systemically and have a domain logic and way of thinking on their own, they became wonderful managers. We had to move some managers to other positions; they could not grasp that such intervention was possible or that their knowledge of systems was a key to being a good manager of people."

Time and dollar expensive "Miracle weekends" and "people managing intensives" ended in the same way: the manager returns from a very expensive workshop. After a few days of motivated interaction with employees, the old way of organizing and motivating workers returns to previous patterns where employees just "don't respond to spec."

Successful corporate leaders have only recently set aside the "great leader concept. This is the idea that leaders are born and will be great no matter what the context. Unique aspects of a specific plant domain and the personality of a particular manager are washed over by the "logical" analogy to the transferability of technical competence. "Look, technical competence is technical competence," they say. "A good alignment man will be good no matter what the plant scenario." Back at corporate, the challenges of ever more stringent competition in times of declining capital budgets and other resource constraints makes such common sense analogies painfully simplistic. Corporate leaders eager to make equally dramatic change in this more complex milieu find no such easy transferability.

Against all this complexity, there is one point of consensus: CEOs and managers who discount the importance of context and culture in positive change efforts are "planning to fail." Fresh contract signed, the newly hired manager confronts a wall of inertia and a river of disbelief when he is told about "the way we do things around here." They realize the importance of systemic change too late; in forgetting their training, they learn that firing a manager and getting a new "hot-shot" doth not a new plant make."

What is wrong here? If weekend workshop makeovers and hiring a new manager are not equal to making a plant a more competitive global player, what is the answer? CEOs around the world have learned some basics:

  • 1. We must expect managers to be as concerned and as knowledgeable about global market changes, demanding customers as corporate CEOs.

Managers must be made to feel the increasing pressure and hear the harsh questions so much a part of corporate leaders' life. Stockholders and stakeholders ask "Why invest more in a plant that can't achieve levels of plant reliability with current plant assets or even keep its best workers?" The challenge of enacting flexible adaptation to the complexity of radically changing global scenarios can only be met on the plant level. The CEO's yearly requests for higher capital budgets can only be written in the continual upgrading of social capital at the plant level. Successful CEOs will have managers who can skillfully combine the expansion of the physical assets budget with the intentional upgrading of the social assets of each individual plant.

  • 2. We must have managers who can achieve new levels of flexibility from their workforce.

That flexibility will only come at the hands of the engineer manager who sees the social asset as being at least equal to the systemic complexity and intelligibility of the physical asset. They must see their workers as acting within an intricate web of constantly interacting individuals who understand "the way we do things around here." Like any system, they will "respond to changed spec" of a new change only if the intervention into that system is done with a clear understanding of its plant-specific rules, roles and rituals. However, there is little hope that change "down in the plant" will be equal to the market changes the CEOs confront unless they comprehend and believe two central concepts:

  • (a) the manager must change his focus to intrinsic-enabled action away from extrinsic motivational approaches. The assumption of the value of external motivators lies deep in the engineering-based belief system. From the invention of the wheel around 5500 years ago to modern day miracles success was assured by effectively, acting upon a mute, relatively unchanging object. Unfortunately this success has been transferred to the assumption that managing social assets is not all that different from managing physical assets. If something isn't working, one could, theoretically, alter or replace this or that piece to keep production rolling. When the engineer becomes a manager of people, the assumptions underwriting thousands of years of success in innovating mechanical solutions and the lack of formal education in the so-called soft sciences combine to create counter productive results "down in the plant" all over the world.

    Engineers as managers and CEOs aggressively searched for new management solutions. They toured facilities overseas only to return filled with new hope and yet another cookie-cutter program guaranteed to succeed. Again, the solution was sought as an engineer would search for a new mechanical solution. Ironically, because they overvalue extrinsic motivators Engineer managers carefully screen outside expertise before they allow them to work on plant physical assets; these same managers are only half as mindful about outside motivation experts intervening into all forms of the much more sensitive employee relations.

    Recently, however, there are clear indications that business leaders are stretched beyond their comfort levels with all these new "outside" programs. After spending all that money and time, the lunchroom conversations of the plant deride their efforts as "programs of the month." For management and employees, each new program brought more frustration than results. Even today, engineers-as-managers and CEOs continue the same depressing journey as they seek the holy grail of quick-fix extrinsic motivators for managing and motivating people.

    (b) If engineers as managers are to create intrinsic-enabled action, they must change their fundamental beliefs about worker competence and inclinations. Any management practice is based on an intention which was precipitated by a corresponding belief. If, for example, a manager believes that non-management employees are essentially lazy, untrustworthy, incompetent, and uncaring, that manager will feel compelled (his intent) to use any means possible to manipulate the individual into performing required tasks without "wasting" time by giving reasons and explanations. Likewise, the employee will quickly learn to comply with assigned tasks leaving commitment and accountability in the hands of those with some ability to affect them. This belief and that kind of low-level employee response will not, as they say in the plant, "get it." In our current global environment of high complexity and even higher variety, this "black box" behaviorist approach may, now and then, obtain a degree of compliance from employees. Actually, though, this compliance approach is entirely out of step with the complexities built into widespread global change. Compliance behavior exemplifies workplaces of the past. Looking in the rear-view mirror to a time of supplier-controlled markets will undercut the plant site flexibility corporations need today.

At the very top of today's marketplace demands is the requirement of employee flexibility. The renewed demand for flexibility can only be met with plant level investment in employee centered initiative and customer-centric responses.

  • 3. Successful engineers as managers of the future will continue to demonstrate competence in managing successful interventions into their plant's physical assets. However, they must develop a new capability for interventions that create similar flexibility and market "fit" in the utilization and expansion of the reliability and adaptability of their social assets.

Before any intentions are planned, the successful engineer manager will reevaluate his own current beliefs about the people he depends on to make that success real. Most managers never consider that when they are withholding information about a cash flow problem, giving pep talks, or preventing employees from hearing customer complaints, they are acting out their intent to control and manipulate employees based on a belief that the employees are incapable or unwilling, or just not bright enough to respond constructively to the information.

Engineers as managers must confront entrenched disbelief about employee capacity and willingness to contribute. They must understand how the social systems that make up the culture were created by a multitude of factors not the least of which are the history of management practices and employee responses to them in their particular plant.. Understanding the site-specific and systemic nature of these relationships and communications will reveal the beginning of an answer to achieving the internal commitment and intrinsic motivation the manager seeks. He will realize that the answer lies in his understanding of plant culture in general and of his plant in particular. The manager must begin to look at himself and his role within a frame of new demands for flexibility - a demand for flexibility not all that different from the one he wants to see in his employees' responses.

In this new global scenario, flexible and committed employees will not be approached as easily manipulated, woefully unaligned objects but as complex human beings capable of initiating breakthroughs in efficiency, cost and quality as a second-nature response. From the manager's point of view, the intention to achieve high levels of flexibility begins with his own beliefs and understandings. He must actively structure this internal commitment and the rationale for it into daily operations as an unquestioned but deeply understood and appreciated assumption. CEOs and managers must invest in people and relationships rather than hard-wired positions and motivational workshops. They must find accountability and responsibility in the web of relationships of unique individuals working through a unique, domain-centered culture.

Practically translated, this means that when customers have a problem, they don't have to wrestle layers of management to get it solved. Employees act as agents of the business actively seeking ways to improve the customer experience and business profitability. We see examples of this in companies like Toyota where continual improvement is a way of being, or cultural attribute. Managers do not demand it, or manipulate it into being; they simply enable it to occur by creating the environment that engenders such attitudes and behavior.

Again, meeting the increasing demands for flexibility in our rapidly altering global markets will demand more flexible managerial responses to both physical and social assets. Like all effective change approaches, positive combination of belief and intention begins at the top, is experienced at the bottom and is realized in the bottom line. This will require:

  • - Engineer managers who believe that those at the bottom of the organization hierarchy are capable and interested in finding meaning and purpose in their daily contributions as employees;

    - Such managers will intentionally build more global understanding and upgraded skills, dispositions and capability to handle new demands for flexibility in response;

    - They will provide a context filled with everyday opportunities for employees to choose greater commitment and accept accountability within the framework of transparent organizational outcomes.

How must the engineer as manager change?

In a traditional supplier-controlled market world, manager soon learn that to obtain results they must "hold people accountable" as if that will somehow create some breakthrough in compliance behavior. The get-that-SOB-in- my-office management style has moved from merely being annoying to being seriously lethal to a plant's survival The CEO, quoted at the beginning of this article, "moved engineer managers over" when they could not be convinced that their primary role and priority responsibility was that of listener and a facilitator. This new role requires a new level of flexibility in his beliefs about the nature of his relationship with his employees and the utilization web of relationships that chronically produce and reproduce "how we do things around here."

Continuous improvement begins in this web of relationships and in the culture those relationships spawn. Flexibility in response to variety and change begins and ends in these relationships and the specific culture of his plant domain. The engineer as manager must set aside his belief in the easy transferability of models for change appropriate only to physical assets. However, once this is accomplished, the highly trained and self-developed excellence of the engineers' comprehensions of systems and legendary comes to the fore in amazing ways. When this understanding of systems and the ability to innovate ever more complex solutions is combined with new beliefs about human process as a system of relationships open to intelligent intervention, the engineer as manager is without equal and, ultimately, will be in greatest demand. At this point of self-realization these professionals will be the best candidates for the management of people inside plants or inside the board room.


Here's a thought: (1) cut the lads and lasses in on the profit of running the plant; (2) give them the responsibility and authority to make things better. Amazing how well that works.

The Plant Manager needs to be enthusiastic and take care of his folks so they can do their jobs without getting jerked around by the distant "Executives"

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I couldn't get past the statement in the article -- "down in the plant". A plant worker will automatically place heavy emphasis on the word DOWN. Just an observation, and perhaps not valid, but in my limited experience i've found US plant organizations to be much more hierarchical than those in Canada, where things are more egalitarian. I've many times seen engineers avoiding loosing their jobs by efforts of persons on the line pointing out their errors or omissions. In comparable situations in the US, I've seen engineers acting arrogantly make dumb mistakes such as sloping gutters the wrong way, but suffer no consequence.

I also find the wording and grammar of the article to be too convoluted to make any sense, and I flatter myself that I'm good at that. I know, the author is targeting the elites of the industry, not the likes of dumb old me "down in the plant".

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