To Be Most Effective, Your Engineering Staff Needs To Come Down Off Their Pedestal.
By Steve Schumacher
When I first got into the consulting business, my first client was a glass bottle manufacturing plant in old industrial Los Angeles. I had left a job as a financial analyst for a large aerospace company to seek a career where I could interact with people more than spreadsheets.
My first meeting with the management team of the plant involved a discussion of how they measure and track employee performance. I remember very clearly standing in front of this group of middle-aged veteran manufacturing employees and talking to them of “down-sloping curves,” “scatter diagrams,” and “regression analysis.”
Thankfully, I had a senior consultant with me who told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had better cut out all that fancy language and speak to these managers on their level. As I look back on that experience, it taught me a valuable lesson that Stephen Covey put so well: Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood.
Having worked with mining and aggregate companies for more than 20 years, I see that same situation play out quite often with engineers. I see companies recruit and hire top engineering graduates, and send them out to cure all the problems of the plants. Unfortunately, these hot-shot engineers go full steam into the plants with a bunch of great ideas but without the interpersonal skills to partner effectively with plant personnel. Even though I am talking primarily about staff engineers, the same advice below pertains to finance, IT, HR, and other staff positions in your company.
Get feedback. If there is one thing that engineers like, it is data. Put together a survey of questions that are designed to give the engineers feedback on how they are perceived. These questions should include areas of customer service, listening skills, business etiquette, follow-up, planning, reputation, etc. Have operations personnel fill out the survey anonymously. After you give your engineers some tools to help them improve, administer the survey again to see if there has been any change.
Put action plans together. Get the engineers together, give them the feedback from the surveys, and put an improvement action plan together. Some of the feedback may be quite negative; explain that it is just one point in time and that you have confidence those improvements can be made. Recognize the positive feedback from the survey and make sure those good things are continued. Just like any other project, follow-up regularly on action plan progress and provide coaching where necessary.
Promote an “internal customer service” attitude. When you get down to it, operations personnel are customers of the services of your engineers. Work in instilling that approach in the minds and actions of your engineers. Ask them “If you were a contractor, what would you put on your monthly invoice?” Going from a culture where the engineers are king to one where operations is king takes time and patience.
Give the engineers the tools. Set up regular workshops for your engineers on topics like Partnering Skills, Listening Skills, Conflict Resolution, Presentation Skills, and Time Management. You cannot hold a group of engineers accountable to become better partners if you do not give them the skills to partner effectively.
Set up groundrules for plant visits. Have a checklist of items that each engineer must complete before, during, and after each plant visit. Items should include sending an agenda in advance, meeting with the plant manager, walking the plant, close-out meetings, etc. This will help your engineers plan their time and the plant people will appreciate the structure.
Train plant personnel. Many of the situations that happen at plants could, and should, be handled by plant personnel without the help of a staff engineer. In order to do that, plant personnel must be trained on how to identify issues proactively and address them in a timely manner. Flying senior engineers around to put out fires is costly and time consuming. Set a goal of transferring knowledge and ability from your staff engineers to plant engineers and other operations personnel.