After college, I began my career as a manufacturing engineer at Cummins Engine Company. To be honest, I was clueless as to what I was doing, but thankfully had some leaders that helped guide me. The challenge with their mentoring is that it was old school. They focused more on trench work and survival. After six months in the role as an ME, I was focused on keeping the existing equipment going instead of engineering anything. My role was essentially a maintenance tech with an ME title. The supervisor of the line I was responsible for paged me at every whim. Instead of focusing on process improvement, I was focused on production survival. Of course, because this was my first job, it all seemed natural. I have always enjoyed troubleshooting and solving problems, so I fit right in.
As I learned more and understood the needs of the department, I realized that if I continued to duct tape the issues, we would never get ahead. This really was survival and not my ideal career path. After 5 years, I chose to change careers. As a sales engineer, I was able to stay involved with manufacturing, but avoid the day to day survival mode. My assumption was that other companies utilized their ME’s to focus on new processes and process improvement. I was wrong. Most companies use ME’s as technicians to troubleshoot issues and duct tape the equipment until a permanent fix can be implemented. This stands to reason because if you can’t ship the products being manufactured, there is no cash flow. No cash flow means no payroll and no profits. So, we became slaves to the process. “Whatever it takes” is the motto for nearly every company I have visited in my 20-year sales career. It is a cycle that is difficult to escape because troubleshooting and firefighting are easier than permanent solutions.
-Why is firefighting addictive?
-How do we break the firefighting addiction?
-What is the ideal role for an ME?
Question 1: Why is firefighting addictive?
Engineers really enjoy solving problems. As members of an organization, we also enjoy being the hero. Solving issues to get production flowing again validates our value as a team member. Solving problems is also inherently satisfying. So, firefighting allows us to solve problems and be the hero. Who wouldn’t enjoy such a role and the recognition as a valued team member?
The reason this mode is a problem is because firefighting is not often a permanent fix. We tend to treat the symptoms and not the core problem. The constant effort to firefight leaves no time for deep work. Deep work is a core tool for implementing permanent solutions. Deep work is taking blocks of time to research new processes and methods for producing products. When we take the time to identify the root cause, identify a permanent solution, and establish a plan for implementation, we bring long-term value to our organization. However, thinking is the most difficult work known to man. Most of us will willingly and voluntarily use our muscles to labor versus using our mind to labor. Solving problems is an intellectual engagement, but with it comes immediate gratification. Scientifically speaking, we get a dopamine hit from solving the problem. In contrast to deep work, which requires focus and intention, firefighting is a much more satisfying experience for the participant.
Question 2: How do we break the firefighting addiction?
The answer involves two parties – the individual engineer and the organization. The individual engineer will need to focus on the organizational benefits associated with planning versus reacting. This transition to a proactive solution will take time and require intentional planning with operations and maintenance. Many organizations come to rely on the engineers as maintenance techs and first line of defense in correcting issues.
Here is a plan for moving from survival mode to proactive mode:
Step 1: Identify and prioritize line issues. Work with operations, quality, and maintenance to create a list of problems or trouble spots for your area of responsibility. After you build the list, it is critical that you prioritize the list based on criteria that you establish with the team. A sample list of criteria for consideration:
-Frequent downtime concerns
-Incompatible software or hardware
-Ease of implementation vs. impact to production
Step 2: Calculate the benefits. Businesses and individuals respond to stimulus based on rewards. If the business can increase efficiency and profitability, it wins. The individual might have more time to focus on other areas of the operation and increase their overall value to the organization. The organizational ROI should inspire management to authorize the fundamental mode change from reactive to proactive. The ROI is certainly important, but we must also consider the time required to execute the change or corrective action. Bottom line here is to rough out the financial benefits and manufacturing benefits to get management backing the change.
Step 3: Establish an implementation plan and timeline. Fundamentally, this is what we are going to do, how we are going to do it, and how long it is going to take. In order for this new mode of operation to be accepted in the organization, it is incumbent upon the engineer to communicate. Here is the progress, here is what is next, and here is when that will be completed. As engineers, we often struggle with the communications, but to have an organizational shift to proactive solution implementation, you must get over it and keep everyone informed from top to bottom.
Step 4: Execute the plan. Utilize an open issues list and timeline to maintain accountability and stay on track.
Step 5: Measure success. In my 24 years in manufacturing, measuring success is where nearly every organization falls short. We promised the organization a specific return, so measuring that return and the benefits promised is the only way to verify success. This level of accountability ensures that the justification for the project has been checked and double checked.
Step 6: Lessons learned. Industry gives lip service to continuous improvement. The truth is it takes relentless discipline and accountability to create a culture of continuous improvement. Taking time to get the lessons learned from the previous project is the surest way to ensure the next project has a higher level of success. My experience has been that organizational management is the greatest determinant to a relentless pursuit of continuous improvement. Management gets comfortable and unwilling to challenge the norm. Always take the lessons learned as an opportunity for a better future. Growth is incremental.
Question 3: What is the ideal role for a manufacturing engineer?
The ideal role of the ME involves progressing the business toward a more efficient output. This requires deep work focused on improving existing processes and implement new technologies that will give the business a competitive advantage.
In my career, I have been to over 1,000 manufacturing facilities. I have learned a thing or two about what separates the facilities that thrive versus those that survive. If you are interested in learning more about what the difference is, click here.
The role of the ME continues to evolve, but in my experience, it is one of the pivotal roles in successful manufacturing facilities. They fix problems, develop quotes for sales, implement new technology and processes, work weekends and long hours, support maintenance, answer to operations, and keep the place from falling apart. Organizations that take the time to intentionally transition from a reactive mode of operation to a proactive mode will be the winners long-term. Reactive management stresses the organization, creates high turnover and organizational dependency, and eliminates opportunities for efficiency gains that increase profitability. It is the surest way of permanently closing a facility. Reactive management is an unsustainable approach in today’s competitive, global manufacturing world.