January 2008

Old-fashioned engineering dodges traps

By Jan Jekielek

Today's perpetually improving technology brings new equipment, systems, solutions, and semantics. It also brings new dramatic challenges. Project requirements become greater and the level of control systems project complexity, and costs increase. With all this to keep track of, it is important to keep an eye out for myths and traps in the field and get on with the business of good old-fashioned control systems engineering.

Old-fashioned control systems engineering means more than a nostalgic connotation of the good old times when job estimates were based on the supervisor's assessment on how many people were needed for the project. It also means cultivating the principle of one-page schedules and cost updates and on-the-dot, minimized meetings, all of that allowing for maximizing the value of the project outcome. Full recognition and rejection of all kinds of humbug, regardless of the source, is one of the most distracting and de-motivating factors for any group of productive people.


Since all new tools allow for more project integration, that integration should be reflected by the control systems group work. This means short, periodic project control systems staff meetings, for information not problem solving, are highly recommended. They should be taking place same time, same place, no notice of meeting given. They should include around-the-room, voluntary reports on problems and developments. Start and end on the dot or sooner, no matter who is missing, with no stigma for non-attendance attached. The person in charge should circulate one-page minutes the same day.

Wearing three hats

The control systems project group supervisor should wear three hats: facilitator, leader, and manager. The facilitator's hat is the most important role, where those who do real work get all the help they need. The suggested use is 60-70% of time spent on the job. It is time for the supervisor to learn about his people as well as learn about new technologies. It is time to prompt employees' critical thinking and discovery of strengths and weaknesses of new technologies. This is where the most important on-the-job training takes place and where managers can build trust. 

Supervisors should wear the leader's hat 20-30% of the time to assure overall, as well as individual, vision, perspectives, and hope for the people. While wearing the leader's hat, you can answer questions, clarify doubts, and quell frustrations. Visible symptoms of lack of leadership include being frantically busy and blaming others.

Wear the manager's hat as little as possible (10-20%) to cover necessary, but sometimes less pleasant work and compliance requests, as well as feedback and performance assessments. Wearing the manager's hat should entail all supervisor meetings.

Importance of trust

Dramatically increased access to information requires more honest communication; this promotes trust, which in turn engenders loyalty. The first rule of trust is getting to a state where managers give employees no reason to distrust. When trustworthy individuals are promoted, the organization proves trust succeeds. Building trust takes time and is based on deeds not words. Today, requirements for trusting relationships are not limited to the internal workings of a project or a group. You should also build such relationships with customers, suppliers, and related external organizations. Trust allows for better cooperation and for learning about the true customer needs, and the strengths and weaknesses of the suppliers' equipment and services. Paying close attention to the non-technical aspects of the project can be an eye-opener. People problems typically reflect technical problems on the project.

Dispelling myths, avoiding traps

The idea that advances in control systems technology require a new skill set is classic humbug. It is another smoke screen or impenetrable wall (such as sometimes regulations and safety) created to cover lack of knowledge or urgency to solve problems.

Advances in control systems technology merely require competency, and with it comes the will to learn about new tools.

Outsourcing is usually the most effective way of project execution, as long as it is under judicious control. Outsourcing control of the outsourced project is a recipe for technical problems, cost and schedule overruns, if not for disaster.

A system supplier might know the system because their experts are there when they sell the system. Some of their experts will be forced to attend systems by the most knowledgeable customers. They might even send new hires to attend systems for other customers. Smart customers require the supplier to use some of their own personnel for the system design, staging, and testing.

Forgiving new technologies is another trap. Cutting corners because you think you can get things easily fixed later can be costly. With new technology come greater requirements, functionality, and quantity of data. Early errors can easily amplify.

The phrase, "The customer is always right," is often a great excuse for overcharging or the easy way out for consultants and suppliers. Customers pay for their own mistakes or errors, but often learn about it and remember being taken for a ride. Some consultants actually went under after working to bad customer specifications, and some suppliers got blacklisted.


Jan Jekielek, P.E., is a managing partner at NutshellModels.com, a developmental learning consultant, specializing in engineering program, project, and design assignments, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (jekielek@nutshellmodels.com).