Engineers hold the key to progress and problem solving in an increasingly technical world. They are often seen as experts with the wizardry to solve complicated problems. Managers sometimes expect miracles from them.
But engineers do not operate in a vacuum. They need the support of managers or internal clients. Since engineers seldom control operations, they must collaborate with others in the organization. Without these relationships, their expert solutions might go unused and their clients can be dissatisfied. What’s more, the engineers will find themselves frustrated.
Collaboration with clients requires blending engineering expertise with consulting skills. Clients must be engaged in the process from defining the problem to implementing the solution. That’s the foundation for commitment and responsibility.
“Engineers sometimes have trouble de-emphasizing their technical competencies when called in to solve problems with internal clients,” says Dave Bryson of Chevron Inc. “But once engineers force themselves to begin talking about the personal aspects of projects, they’re good at it. I enjoy watching engineers learn new aspects of consulting,” he says.
By temperament and training, engineers focus on the technical aspects of a problem. But in today’s organizations few problems are purely technical. When the focus is solely in that arena, important issues get lost. Who manages the problem? What are the incentives to handle technical factors in a certain way? How can resistance to solutions be reduced? These non-technical issues can affect virtually every problem.
In a traditional setting an engineer recognizes that management issues surround a project. Returning to the office, he or she discusses with other engineers all the issues negatively affecting the project. But they aren’t in a position to solve the situation. By contrast, engineers acting as consultants share a whole array of pertinent information — technical and contextual — with their clients.
FIXING THE REAL PROBLEM
Charles Fields, formerly an engineer with Hartford Steam Boiler and now a Designed Learning affiliate, tells how he returned to one location five times to fix a technical problem regarding a furnace. He learned on his first visit that operators were not following the maintenance procedures. They were so busy that no time was being spent on preventive maintenance. Not wanting to complain, the operators did not bring up the matter with their supervisor. On his fifth return trip, Fields called the lack of maintenance to the manager’s attention. Once preventive maintenance became a priority, the problem was solved. Acting as a true consultant, Fields recognized that the technical problem could be solved with a non-technical approach.
GETTING THE BIG PICTURE
“If the widget broke, I’d fix the widget or tell them how to fix it”, says Frank Talbot, staff engineer for Chevron Corporation in San Ramon, California. “Now I get outside of purely technical issues and look at the human factors. I’ve learned to ask ‘What is the client contributing to the problem?’”
Talbot recalls being called to a plant where the coupling on a compressor was broken. After a week’s work he made a few recommendations about instrumentation and controls, his area of expertise. But four or five other recommendations focused on the way line managers could prevent the problem from recurring, such as better training and documentation. A surprising number of recommendations were adopted.
“That was a first for me,” says Talbot. “It never occurred to me that a plant manager would welcome the advice of a technical guy beyond the widget level. Earning that welcome takes specific skills.”
DIFFERENT VIEWS OF THE PROBLEM
Cost is often a stumbling block for staff engineers who want to solve technical problems in the best possible way. Managers, on the other hand, are charged with holding the line on costs. What the engineer thinks is necessary, the client will see as “over-engineering,” viewing engineers who hold their ground as stubborn and inflexible. Consulting skills help narrow the gap between these two positions.
Charles Fields recalls an engineer sent to investigate a boiler failure who wanted to perform additional tests. When he learned the tests would lengthen the outage by two days, the plant manager resisted. Instead of insisting on the tests, the engineer encouraged the plant manager to express his concerns.
The manager felt pressured because production was behind schedule. The engineer convinced the plant manager he was on his side and they quickly eliminated the cause of the boiler failure so the manager’s operation could return to production.
In extreme cases, clients pressure engineers to take shortcuts, sometimes demanding a quick and dirty solution that is unacceptable or even dangerous. In such situations, engineers have to learn to hold their ground. “It’s important to avoid establishing possible courses of action as your way and my way,” says Richard Bergman of Corning Inc. A collaborative approach is essential.
More organizations are charging back for the work of staff engineers. This means corporate engineering departments must compete with external engineering consulting firms that bid on projects.
Staff engineers are sometimes restricted in the ways they can set prices, priorities and shift resources. This can prevent them from competitive bidding. Internal engineering departments must support corporate overhead, putting them at a pricing disadvantage. While staff engineers base quotes on time spent, clients prefer a set price. More effective contracting helps staff engineers and their clients better understand each other’s situation.
Charles Fields describes a time the home office sent an account engineer to find out why a regional manager could not provide an engineer for a temporary assignment. The manager cited limited resources. Instead of arguing, the engineer lent a sympathetic ear, encouraging the manager to describe the larger picture.
The company’s accounting procedures did not provide compensation for the time and expenses of an engineer who was temporarily reassigned. Since the engineering manager was measured on profitability, assigning an engineer would affect his results. The engineer arranged a meeting with accounting, data processing, and the regional managers. Together they worked out a simple procedure to transfer expenses across regions.
NOT JUST AN EXPERT OR A PAIR OF HANDS
Engineers can be pigeonholed into roles that block collaboration. They are often called on to take over a problem in a situation when a vulnerable or threatened manager plays an inactive role, simply judging the proposed solution. If the project doesn’t work, the client blames the engineer. To avoid these pitfalls, engineers must understand the factors that result in these unproductive expert-client relationships.
At the other extreme, an engineer can become a pair of hands, accepting the manager’s plan of action and implementing it without exploring the overall situation. Often a manager wants the staff engineer to do some undesirable chore. Some engineers welcome this role because they like collecting data and creating designs. They may be less comfortable at the communication necessary to uncover the larger problem. A good contract includes knowledge of the larger problem and the right to influence decisions. Without this foundation, the result is likely to be unsatisfactory.
Neither role — expert or pair of hands — requires collaboration. If engineers want to work as partners, collaboration is essential. As consultants, engineers need to develop trust in the relationship. When trust is established, clients are more willing to commit the money, time, and effort needed for a successful project.
One engineer worked on the relationship first when she arrived at a pulp and paper mill to make a risk assessment. Because the plant manager seemed upset, she asked, “How do you personally feel about having the assessment conducted?” Disarmed by her personal concern, the manager confided he was upset because past risk assessments had taken long. The engineers acted like policemen, he told her, and there had been problems with the home office. Getting these concerns on the table early enabled the engineer and manager to work out procedures that addressed anticipated problems and yielded a productive working relationship.
There is power in being a true consultant. The engineer is neither an expert solving problems all alone nor a pair of hands implementing someone else’s solutions. True consultants give the relationship with the client as much attention as the technical issues.
CONTRACTING IS ESSENTIAL
The point of maximum leverage for the engineer-consultant is in the contracting phase of a project. Internal consultants often undervalue the process or overlook the essential steps of contracting. These are some of the steps:
- Make personal connection
- Communicate and understand how the problem was initially defined
- Negotiate the roles and responsibilities of all participants
- State what you want from the client
- Be clear on what the client wants from you
- Deal with resistance
- Agreeing on a definition of success and failure
- Focus on what went well
Richard Bergman of Corning agrees. “Once I jumped into a project and got going, even though I had nagging questions. In meetings with the project leader, I provided him with the data he wanted. He, however, made his decisions in private. I realized that my services and abilities were being underutilized. Clearly, I’d skipped over the contracting portion of my involvement. I became a pair of hands.” Realizing what had happened, Bergman was able to stop the project long enough to negotiate a more appropriate role.
ONE PROJECT — MANY CONTRACTS
Good and complete contracting must be done with everyone participating in the project. An obstacle to good contracting can be confusion over reporting relationships between corporate offices and field operations, or both. Sometimes the contract must be triangular. For example, feelings of rivalry, vulnerability and intrusion can complicate a project involving a staff engineer from corporate headquarters, a manager and a local engineer. The engineer-consultant learns to bring these concerns out in the open to make the relationship work.
Charles Fields relates a story of a plant manager of a utility who requested a corporate engineer to oversee the dismantled inspection of a large turbine. When he learned that the plant engineers did not know he was coming, he asked them how they felt about working with him. After some give and take, they told him they didn’t like the idea of a “hot shot” from corporate telling them how to do the project. He acknowledged their feelings as natural, paving the way for a discussion of how they could work together. “Had this step not been taken,” says Fields, “those underlying feelings would have slowed the project and made for a miserable relationship at the plant.”
Engineers often must contract effectively with multiple clients, not only managers but on-site employees who might be distracted or removed from their regular duties. Keeping everyone informed takes time, energy and commitment to communication.
A MATTER OF PRACTICE
Dave Bryson of Chevron has learned the value of consulting. “Engineers first want to fight the model for contracting taught in Designed Learning workshops because they are concerned about showing weaknesses”, he says. “Once they take it step-by-step, the pieces get more comfortable. Once they feel it’s okay to not have all the answers, they know they can work collaboratively with clients. Waking up to these new dimensions of their work is good for the engineer and the organization.”