May/June 2012
Talk to Me

Are you flipping coins or doing your job?

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

Decision-making is an important part of the automation professional's job responsibility; you can just flip a coin or use a decision-making process. Some decisions are relatively straightforward and easily made based on your experience. More complex decisions require the involvement and participation of multiple stakeholders, people affected by a decision and management who fund investments based on the outcome of a decision. Leveraging the knowledge and know-how of the people in an organization yields much better results than having a narrow committee. It is important to use a process to achieve good decisions and avoid committees that create more problems. A decision process I believe has merit is a combination of techniques from the Creative Education Foundation and Kepner-Tregoe methods that you might find useful when working with a group to make decisions.

Start by getting everyone together to discuss and list the issues and information around this challenge. Then ask what, where, how, and why about the issues around the need to make a decision. Also ask stakeholders what they want to achieve, preserve, and avoid with the decisions made. While this may seem obvious, it is important to dig around for information to provide everyone a clearer understanding of the situation and help participants understand other perspectives. It is important to allow all opinions to be heard.

Exploring what stakeholders want to preserve and avoid may seem trivial but, in my experience, these are the least thought-out factors that, if not considered, lead to unintended consequences. For example, this is an unintended consequence that happened at a large company where I was an engineer: the marketing department decided to change the color of service trucks from white to dark blue. After the first batch of trucks was repainted, the safety valves on containers of compressed gases-kept in the trucks for service work-activated because the insides of the trucks were getting too hot and the gas pressure went too high. The blue trucks were repainted white.

The next step is to create multiple problem/opportunity statements starting with: In what ways might we…? Developing multiple problem statements helps flush out a hierarchy of decisions, problems, and opportunities that are connected to the main decision and leads to a better understanding by the team. These statements can be prioritized and decisions/solutions can be brainstormed for the appropriate ones.

Is this too much effort? Consider a decision to replace a distributed control system (DCS), a major investment of time and money. This is a complex decision with multiple stakeholders including users, process designers, automation engineers, and production managers. If the plant is going to be competitive in the future, a number of decisions should be thoughtfully and consciously made that will shape the final investment. The alternative is to have the decisions made on a narrow set of factors by only a few of the stakeholders. This may get the decision done faster but generally does not work out well. A manager I worked with once cautioned the team to involve all stakeholders in decisions or later the decision would be undermined by "malicious compliance." Malicious compliance meaning stakeholders not involved in the decision would blindly follow it without thinking, so it would later fail.

I don't recommend flipping a coin to make a decision, but I have used Sigmund Freud's advice. Freud suggested flipping a coin not actually to make the decision but to clarify the decision-maker's feelings. After flipping the coin, he suggested you consider your reaction to the outcome of the flip and ask yourself: Am I pleased? Am I disappointed? The notion is you will recognize how you really feel about the matter.

Share your thoughts at blydon@isa.org.