Thoughts of A Recovering Engineer
Through my working career I have always watched what works well and what does not, while making mistakes and learning along the way.
In addition, I am a personal development junkie and anything I learn I use it to make my job easier. No matter what I am doing I always need the help of others. There are two ways to get this, I can force it or I can take a little more time and build relationships.
Using my authority will get the work done, but it will be superficial (I have tried this and and watched projects fail). When I use my authority, the people helping me will only do as much as they have to and no more. I have tried this, and it is a headache the whole time.
By building relationships and showing everyone the importance of the project, I have gotten their support and have found they will follow me anywhere I take them in the project.
In one project I was implementing a new product tracking system. I took the time to explain what I was doing to everyone. This lasted about six hours because I made sure to talk with each person. Some people were on board, some were against it, and some were neutral. One of the people I talked with began up working with his peers (on his own, while I was not there) to sell my project. This made me feel good that he trusted me enough to get everyone else on board.
Below is a list of actions I have taken to build relationships and get everybody to support me on the projects. Especially the people the on the floor who will be using what I implement.
Since this is a novel I have made the important points bold so that you can skip the details if you like.
- Create relationships to make changes smoother. I described this in the story above. If I do not do this people will be apprehensive to me and my project.
- Take ownership of the project. It is my project. Once I take ownership of it I begin referring to the project as mine and I am sure to ask people to help me and not the company, my boss, etc.
- I always take blame for whatever happens. This does two things, it holds me accountable to know the people I am working with and it lets my team feel safe to push the envelope and try new things.
- Whenever there is praise, I always let my team know and tell the praise givers I am not the one who deserves it. If it is possible, I get the person praising us to go talk to the person who actually did the good job. You would be surprised how many upper level managers, once I ask them, would go and praise the person who actually deserved it.
- In whatever project I am working on I involve those who will be effected by it. Not everyone, because nothing would get done, a small team. Getting these people involved builds confidence in the system since the ones implementing it will also be using it (Have you ever had a software forced on you which would work better if they asked your opinion?). Plus, when there is a problem the people who use it have ownership and want to make sure it makes it through the problem so they will work even harder to keep it alive. Finally, those folks are the experts in their jobs. No matter how much school I went to or if I did that job in the past, they are still more expert than I am so they are the ideal people to help improve it.
- I have had to modify the work of some teams. For many years, I was known as the young engineer (I am finally getting past time where they hold my age against me) that did not know anything. I “did not understand their job”. Most of the time I did understand their jobs but that was not the point. They had to understand that I knew their jobs from their point of view. I would take a little time each week and go do their jobs with them. This gained me so much respect that they were willing to do almost anything I asked and they were happy to see me when I came around. It makes me a bit emotional thinking about this topic; when I left that job I was sure to say good buy to all the folks I worked with. A few of those employees were broken hearted that I was leaving since I was “the only boss that was willing to work on the floor”.
- I am a social person. Whenever I walk by someone I always say hello (or some version of it). Whenever I am walking the floor at my job I am sure to say hello to everyone I see. After doing this for a while people began to warm up to me and we became friends. I was essentially friends with 90% of people on the floor which made them feel more comfortable working with me.
- One of the biggest things that builds credibility is follow-through. Doing what you said you were going to do. This is something I do no matter what (even though it may not happen as fast as people like). I am able to do this by not agreeing to things I cannot complete. This has built a huge level of trust with everybody I work with, especially the folks on the floor. They know if they ask me something they will know if I can or cannot do it right there. When I follow-through they then want to reciprocate.
- Whenever I am around people at work I like to slow down and talk to them. I am the type of person that has 1,000 things going on in my head and I am always trying to push forward on whatever I am doing. When I am interacting with others I slow down and talk to them. I do not make it seem that whatever I am doing is more important than they are (this makes them willing to share problems that I can help solve making me more valuable to the company). I take time to talk to them about their weekend and their families. Most people know I have trouble remembering all of the details (I make sure everybody knows I am scatter brained).
- When I am on the floor interacting with people I like to ask “how can I help you do your job better” (a former employee told I was her best boss in 30 years because I wanted to know the answer to this question every week). I know I cannot solve every problem and sometimes I teach them to solve their problems on their own but it lets them know that I care about them.
- One technique I learned early in my career was to find the hardest person to work with in a company and get to know them. Whenever you have a project to implement they are going to fight you the hardest on it. This is where I test my selling skills. I take the time to teach the ins and outs of the project and how it will benefit them. It takes time and frustration to get this person to to agree with the project. I even have them help me make it better. Once I get them to agree, though, most of my work is done. When I roll the project to the rest of the area that person will be the one that fights the hardest for me, and I will have all of the objections covered. Whenever someone poo poos the project to the people around them this individual will back it up when I am not there. Finally, many people that view this person as a leader of sorts so if they accept it then many others will also.
- I have found that if I want to really solve a problem I need to clearly define it first. I am not going to rewrite why since I wrote an article on it.
- One of the key tenants I follow and I also ask others to follow is “it is your job to improve your job”. If I have a problem with my job I find ways to improve it while helping the company reach their goals. A simple example: at one of my previous jobs I had to regularly review the papers where the operators recorded the amount of metal produced. They all filled it out a different way which made it hard to understand how much metal was produced. To remedy this and save me time in the future I redesigned the worksheet and then went to all the operators to show them the best way to fill it out. It worked great and saved me a lot of time and headache from then on. A key point from this is that I did not ask permission for this I just did it. Sometimes I did need to ask permission to make a change in my job but if I do, I always make a clear pitch to my managers on how the change will benefit them and the company.
- Since I am trained as an engineer, I am somewhat of a techie. It is easy for me to sit in my office behind my computer and assume I understand what is going on. I am wrong when I think this way. If I want to understand something I need to go to the floor and see it. Not only does this help me to understand the problem, it helps me to meet the people who do the real work.
- I cannot get everyone to buy into many of the changes I want to make in the organization. The tool I use in this situation is to make it a experiment. I make the change limited and we test it. If it does not work then we can improve it, or scrap it. By looking at things as an experiment people understand it is not permanent and they are willing to give it a shot. There have been many things we have tried which have not worked but now we know. Also, this builds trust that I will not shove things down their throat.
- You may have heard the statement “inspect what you expect” and I agree with it. Whenever a new change is made in a process everyone needs to build habits in using it and it takes time for them to understand the value. To ensure the program sticks, design it so there is automatic feedback if it is not working or I create a program to audit that it is being done.
- Whenever I implement a program it has to have a value to the organization. We do not want people digging holes just to fill them in again (work for work sake). We engineers have a problem with collecting data. Information is good, but it is no good if nothing is done with it. I have learned to stop making people collect information that is not used.
- When someone on the floor asks me something about happenings in the organization, I tell the truth. Also, I let them know if I don’t know the answer (I am extremely transparent). I know people can tell when others are hiding information, they are not stupid, and can handle the truth so I always tell them.
Connecting with people at work is a lot of work but it is worth it. It may not feel like I was making progress in my work while I was taking all the actions I mentioned above, but they are investments in building a team. Through these actions I was able to build trusting relationships with all the folks I worked with (especially the ones on the floor). They felt they could come to me for anything and I would do what I could to help. These folks would work with me in ways that no other engineer I have worked with could get them to do. When I left my last engineering job many of the operators cried a little (some of them I did not realize I made an impact until then).