July/August 2013
Talk to Me

Silver-bullet syndrome

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

Over my years of working in automation and other endeavors, I have observed what I label the silver-bullet syndrome. You are in a meeting that includes business managers, where the team needs to approve expenditures and manpower resources to invest in a proposed new project. Some high-level manager asks what one thing can be done instead of all the work and resources proposed; this person is looking for the one "silver bullet."

This kind of thinking started with the growth of financial and MBA-driven management in the manufacturing industry. This reactive, balance-sheet-driven management focused on short-term pressures to make quarterly numbers. U.S. manufacturing is paying the price for this style of management, rather than benefiting from management based on well-reasoned operating decisions. This thinking has resulted in drastic measures, such as eliminating the highest paid and most experienced engineers from companies to reduce payroll costs, as well as eliminating apprenticeships and internships. The skills crisis in the U.S. has been self-inflicted with short-term company decisions based on financial analysis without an understanding of how to manage and grow the "real manufacturing business."

When the "silver-bullet" people ask what one thing can be done, think of the question as a challenge and clearly explain your analysis of the situation and the benefits of the proposed work and resources. As an automation engineer, you have a unique vocabulary that can be confusing, so you need to simplify your presentation and find a comfort level and common ground to communicate with management. Clear and concise illustrations are effective since most people are visual learners. Organizing your thoughts is important to allow those listening to remain on the same comfort level. People will understand better with order and clarity. Focus on the most important items, so management has the necessary information to make decisions, while explaining what you are doing and how it works.

A great deal of discussion tends to focus on simply explaining the financial benefits of a proposal to management, but I believe this is too little information. Managers are constantly being presented with ideas that will reduce costs and improve efficiency, so this information alone is "noise" and is a necessary but not sufficient part of the presentation. Instead, use simple block diagrams and basic descriptions to explain the functions of the investment they are considering. For example, if you are proposing complex advanced modeling to improve a process, then show the inputs and the outputs to and from a "black box." Explain that inside the box the system performs complex modeling and calculates the control action for the process to improve profits. Also, describe the economic benefits and the consequences if this decision is not made. The more you educate management, the easier it will become to fund projects.

The final step: using clear, simple, and understandable terms, ask for approval, resources, and funding.