01 March 2005
Where are the islands now?
By Peter G. Martin
How many times over the course of the last two decades have you heard industry pundits blame islands of automation for the functional disconnects and subsequent sub-optimal performance apparent within industrial plants?
In recent years, the standardization of communications protocols, software infrastructures, and even the operational design of industrial enterprises have all worked to build bridges that have made it relatively easy and inexpensive for plant engineers to eliminate these proverbial islands. With the emergence of collaborative automation systems and architectures, this can only get easier and less costly to accomplish. It's interesting to note while the technical islands of automation have, for all practical purposes, been eliminated, the functional disconnects within industrial enterprises remain. These functional disconnects are the remaining islands of an organization that represents the greatest barrier to improving performance and perhaps the greatest challenge for today's engineers.
At industrial plants all over the world, it is easy to notice these islands of organization nearly everywhere. The fact remains about how little people from one part of an industrial organization know and understand about the work people in another part of the organization really do. Engineers seldom understand what the accountants really do, much less how they do it. The accountants don't seem to understand what the engineers do and don't even want to ask. Operations and maintenance departments often appear to be at total odds with each other and even blame each other for the inefficiencies in their own part of the business. And the list goes on and on. We can certainly bridge the technical islands, but dealing with the organizational islands is a daunting challenge.
Meeting this challenge requires every employee of an industrial operation to believe their job is broader than that of their functional organization. Engineers must start to understand the company's business drivers and how their job, and the jobs of the operators, maintenance personnel, managers, and accountants, all fit together to meet the business requirements. To accomplish this, every person in every discipline will need a broad business understanding and cross-training in other disciplines. Engineers, in particular, need to broaden their horizons through education in general business and in key business disciplines. Engineering should touch every aspect of the operation and be able to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of every discipline. Engineers who are not up to this task will let great opportunities slip away. Broader understanding will yield new and better business solutions.
Every function in every organization serves a vital purpose. Unifying all of the functions into a collaborative business operation will enhance the value of each function to the business and work to enhance the value of the business as a whole. The personnel in industrial organizations will need to have performance measures aligned not only to their own function, but to the business as a whole. Performance measures drive behavior and are critical to bridging the islands of organization. In industrial operations, the manufacturing process drives the primary workflows and measures of the business. This is the domain of engineering. Engineers must be able to work closely with business management and human resources to identify and build the correct performance measurement system for each person in the operation. This requires engineers to become adept in areas we traditionally considered to be outside of the engineering profession.
Effectively bridging the islands of organization that have evolved in industrial operations over the past decades is clearly a much more challenging task than breaking down the islands of automation. Engineering played a key role in the latter and must assume a leadership role to enable the former. The discipline of engineering must expand into new domains we traditionally thought to be entirely outside the view of engineers. Engineers must become business savvy and lead the charge toward collaborative organizations if industrial operations are going to finally attain the expected and necessary levels of efficiency and productivity required for businesses to survive and thrive. As every engineer considers their career development and career path in industrial organizations, becoming adept in business is an absolute requirement.
Behind the byline
Peter G. Martin is vice president of performance management at Invensys Process Systems in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
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