Engineer Wisdom and Miscellany: More Stories from Richard Sakulich

A few months ago, this blog featured an incident from a delightful little book, Stories from My Working Days by Richard Sakulich, a retired engineer who spent his working life solving problems around the globe for industry. With his eye for irony and ear for the comic, he has recounted his adventures for others to enjoy. His friends, family and the occasional stranger who read Stories from My Working Days have encouraged him to continue, and he has obliged with a sequel, More Stories, just in time for holiday giving. In the new book, his musings continue to explore the comic-tragedy of the human condition through the mind of a logical person.

Work (abridged)

The office atmosphere was fairly relaxed, a professional environment and rather than being one huge room, there were a number of connected smaller areas for the various departments. This helped make it cozier. People worked diligently enough during the day but at the normal quitting time, you did not dare to get caught standing near the exit doors or serious bodily harm could result.

But there were exceptions to the stampede…one of my employees, an Industrial Engineer who had been with the company a fair number of years, was always still at his desk… It bothered me that he worked late constantly, day in and day out, so one night I stopped and stood around a bit until he realized someone was there. We had the following exchange:

Me: Why don’t you pack it in? We certainly don’t expect you to be putting in extra hours like this every day.

Him: It’s no problem. I just want to keep ahead of some of the projects we have going.

The conversation did not end with that, and I dragged out all the stereotyped managerial phrases that are appropriate to a situation like this. Finally, it seemed he was rather tired of my benevolent intentions and he looked up wearily from his desk, shoulders rounded and hunched from a lifetime of paper shuffling…

“Dick! You do not understand. For years, I have had the habit of working late. It is my standard routine, well-established and I am quite comfortable with it. In fact, the people around me have gotten used to it and they scheduled their lives to match. If I went home right now, it would be a complete and utter surprise to my wife. It is the last thing in the world she would expect. In fact, to fill in the time when I work late, she probably plans a little dalliance now and then with some bozo and if I came home early, it is likely I would catch them together.  Now, if that happened, I could not just ignore it. It would be necessary to react and do something and the bottom line is that no matter what that would be, I would have a major marital problem. And Dick, with all the work I have to do here, I don’t have time to deal with a marital problem, too!”

***

Was this beleaguered employee just getting Richard off his back? For this full story, and more stories from the minds of engineers, you can obtain a copy of this privately published gem by contacting me or Richard, and we’ll get a copy to you.

Richard Sakulich’s book is available at local bookstores in the Doylestown, PA area. For most of my readers, that is a bit of a hike…or flight. So, if you would like a copy, contact me at workingwithsmes@gmail.com. I will forward your request to Richard and he will make arrangements to get a copy to you.

Working with SMEs in a Vacuum

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I occasionally hear from readers of my blog or the books who are out there working with experts in every imaginable field and type of industry. You are all out there, gathering information for training, for organizational continuity, and just “for the record”.

Some of you, it seems, feel like you are working in a vacuum. You are trying to figure out what to capture, who and where to gather your institutional knowledge and how to store it. And people are doing amazing jobs. I am always fascinated to hear the breadth and depth of the kinds of work you are doing, and who you are doing it for. Global companies. Governments. Non-profits.

Experts in a Vacuum

I have found two types of vacuums when working with experts. One is the person or people tasked with collecting knowledge who are feeling like they are inventing processes from the ground up. (Actually, you are in many ways because of the unique nature of many of your situations.)

The other type of vacuum is when you are working with an expert in a field of their own. Sometimes experts really are the only ones who know exactly how something is done that is particular to your need. And that kind of vacuum can be daunting for people gathering information for a few reasons:

  1. You only have one source of information – your expert
  2. You have nothing to backstop you on the veracity of the information
  3. The people around the expert – and there are always people around the expert – may have alternative viewpoints or a completely different view of reality and you either a) don’t have access to them/don’t know they exist or b) can’t bypass the expert to check reality against the people around them.

If the last few paragraphs seem a bit arcane to you, they don’t relate to your situation so not to worry.

But if the last few paragraphs have hit a nerve with you, you understand the discomfort of working with experts in a vacuum. Even under the best circumstances, with good access and relationship, there are pieces you just don’t know and may never be able to pressure test against reality.

If you are working in a vacuum, don’t worry. You aren’t the only one. You are doing the best you can. Your work is appreciated or will be by those who come after you. And, if you are lucky, your work is also appreciated by the expert you are getting to know.

Do you ever feel like you are working in a vacuum?

 

Organizational Challenge for Experts: Trusting and Letting Go

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It’s kind of like being a new parent…

The focus of Working with Subject Matter Experts includes the technical aspects of knowledge capture – the process of what to capture and how to efficiently capture it in a way that makes transfer easy and accessible.

One of the biggest hurdles for people who work with experts to capture and transfer information is the human element. People who capture knowledge from experts find they often must overcome resistance and reticence on the part of the expert.

Here’s why. Experts are used to being in charge. Either they are literally the leader of the organization, or they are one of the smartest people in the organization who house valuable information between their ears. It takes a leap of faith for experts to transfer their knowledge to someone else because it requires two difficult issues for anyone who is used to being on top – trusting other people to do an important job well and letting go so they can do it. After all, the inhouse leader and expert in charge of the domain has often been “getting it done” by himself or herself since the beginning. I have worked with more than one expert who has founded a company or organization, and it is their baby. For any new momma who has ever left her infant with a sitter to run to the grocery, you know about trusting your baby to someone else for the first time. This is kind of like that.

As a writer who has worked with experts and as a momma who has left her babies with someone else for the first time, I offer a few pointers to working with experts to help them trust and let go.

  1. Start small. Don’t expect to get the keys to the kingdom the first few tries. You need to gain the trust of the expert until they know that you understand them and can translate or execute for them in a way that is faithful to their mission and intent. Leave your baby for short periods of time and extend it slowly so your child can eventually go to Kindergarten without you.
  2. Examine resources around the expert to find support for expansion. When a leader is having to trust and let go, it is in the interest of furthering their passion. Maybe they have to let go of some tasks so they can concentrate on more important things. Maybe they want to preserve their work so they can move on. Or maybe they want to preserve it for posterity much later down the line. In any event, knowledge and responsibilities will have to be shifted today, so look for people around them who can be trusted to do the job faithfully in place of the expert. Slowly transfer tasks to trusted others. To extend the mommy metaphor, ask the teenager next door to help you with the baby while you are at home so you can watch them in action before you leave them alone with your child.
  3. Put supports in place to build a replicable framework. Figure out how things are done and capture the processes in steps and schedules. With the right documentation and systems, people will know what to do, how to do it and when to do it to keep things moving without direct input from the expert. Mommies do this when they write down baby’s schedule for the sitter.
  4. Prepare for contingencies. Life happens. Build in backup plans and have extra resources on hand. This might require having a virtual assistant on call to provide administrative support in case the regular staff is overwhelmed, for example. Or you may want to have strong ties to a professional network that can provide experienced engineers (or whatever) to pull through a project. Remember, the hands-on expert has been getting it done all the time and often by themselves. Your goal is to change that dynamic so they can be replicated. Mommies post Grandma’s and doctor’s cell phone for the sitter in case of emergency.
  5. Expect change. As knowledge and control leaves the hands of the expert, the input of other people will have two effects 1) things will be done a bit differently with different people executing tasks 2) the organization will be able to start to grow. Those changes require adaptation from everyone, including the expert.

Be prepared to be an organizational ninja as the expert watches their baby grow up and away from them with supports and systems in place. Help the expert expand his or her knowledge and mission beyond anything he or she can do on their own.

Send those babies out to grow into all they can be.

 

When A Subject Matter Expert Teaches: Focus is the Key

It is important to return to the basics occasionally.

The field of expertise and expert knowledge is growing exponentially, just like all knowledge in all disciplines. New ideas are always fun and attractive. No matter how exciting to explore fresh fields, it is important to return to the fundamentals to keep solid ground under your feet.

I was reminded of this yesterday when a colleague approached me with a classic subject matter expert dilemma: We have some brilliant people teaching in our institution, but they are not good instructors. They wander down arcane paths and lose the students.

My colleague is an experienced trainer, in fact an exceptional one with great credentials. We realized this is the time to revisit the basic materials on facilitation and instructional design. So, we put our heads together and came up with a plan for training the program instructor-experts that I would like to share with you:

  1. Hold a required train-the-trainer class that includes all instructors. This serves 2 purposes: it avoids creating an environment that singles out poor performers, and it allows the great performers to provide feedback and mentoring to those who are learning new facilitation and teaching skills.
  2. Ask each instructor to create a 5-slide presentation overview of their class: 1. Title 2. Three learning objectives 3/4/5. description of the three learning objectives. This requires them to focus on their main points in a small amount of space and time, and does not allow for traveling down any rabbit holes.
  3. Keep the train-the-trainer class small so that each person has time to present their slides (6-8 people is ideal)
  4. Develop feedback forms the class uses to rate each person and provide helpful suggestions
  5. Pair each instructor who needs help with a mentor for ongoing support.

Train-the-trainer sessions happen every day. Going back to basics every now and then reminds us to keep our focus on the things that are most important. We can all use a refresher every now and then.

Do you refresh training skills with your experienced trainers?

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

From the ITMPI Webinar: Intentional vs Accidental Innovative Teams

Last Thursday, the IT Metrics and Productivity Institute (ITMPI) sponsored a webinar on Retaining Expert Knowledge: What to Keep in an Age of Information Overload about building a crack innovation team by blending Traditional and NextGen experts. We unpacked how to build a winning innovation team, and I wanted to share a bit of it here with you.

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First, let’s define traditional and nextgen experts.

Traditional experts are the employees who have been around awhile. They know your business, your products and processes, your industry and their area of specialty – all extremely well.

NextGen experts are the brilliant new minds that you hire who are wired for success in the age of exploding information. Their expertise forms a foundation for them to bring skills to your team that help you navigate the world of information. NextGen experts know what to look for, where to find it, and how to leverage open source knowledge to build the next great thing.

That blend of traditional and next generation expertise is your secret weapon when you are building an intentional innovative team.

Intentional vs Accidental Innovative Teams

As we look at the definition of intentional teams, we see that there is a lot of thought and choice that goes into determining who will build your next breakthrough product or process. You will ask yourself questions like:

Who has done something like this before?

Who knows where the market is likely to go?

What are our customers thinking?

What are the limitations of the current technology?

What are the unexplored edges of this technology?

Have we tried something similar and failed, and if so, why?

Why isn’t this being done elsewhere right now?

Where are the landmines?

And on, and on…

Your intentional, innovative teams are agile and versatile. They are unlikely to have all the answers you need, but they will know where to find them. They will look up and down your organization for the right people who will know not only the limits and promise of the technology but will know the mindset of the customers and the peculiarities you might face as you develop something new.

Your intentional teams are inclusive. Who is in your organization who needs to be considered? Are there cultural or physical considerations of your employees or your customers? Is your intended product or process accessible for low vision and low hearing individuals and mobility-impaired?  Will someone in another culture understand your frame of reference and intent? Will the socioeconomic status of your employees or intended market limit or expand the possibilities of the features and benefits of your proposed solution? (Hat tip to SEI’s Inclusive Design panel discussion on October 17 in Oaks, PA. Thank you!)

If your innovative teams are not intentional, they are accidental. Accidental teams may make judgments without information. They include people who aren’t interested or who don’t know where to find the answers. Accidental teams are comprised of people who are available at the time to work on the project.

Do you assemble intentional or accidental teams to build your products and develop your processes?

NOTE: You can join ITMPI at no cost to access live webinars. Premium and corporate membership plans are available for recordings and PDU/CDU credit.

Traditional and NextGen Experts: Webinar this Thursday

ITMPI Webinar this Thursday, October 18 at 11  a.m.

The IT Metrics and Productivity Institute is featuring a webinar on Retaining Expert Knowledge this Thursday, October 18. In it, we’ll focus on the difference between Traditional and NextGen experts, and the value that they bring to your organization individually and together.

Register at this link. I hope to see you there!

For the Next 2 Weeks, Read Retaining Expert Knowledge Online

My publisher, Taylor & Francis, is doing a trial program for people to read books online so you can try before you buy. T&F’s  C&C imprint publishes professional and academic books. As part of this initiative, it is making new books available for a limited time so that potential institutional and corporate buyers are able to see the product before they buy.

Below are ways readers have been able to use the promotional advance glimpse at the book:
❏         Request their library purchase a copy
❏         Consider the book for course adoption or further reading
❏         Cite the book in future publications
❏         Share the link with their own network to widen dissemination
❏         Consider writing a book review on amazon or for a journal

I am happy to be able to offer this opportunity to my email list. Let me know if you use the link so we can ask for similar opportunities again.

 

Click here to read Retaining Expert Knowledge.

 

Knowledge Management in a Law Firm: Yes, It’s a Thing

giammarco-boscaro-380903-unsplash What does knowledge loss cost a law firm? If an attorney leaves a firm, usually knowledge loss is considered in the context of the loss of an individual attorney’s area of expertise and their relationships including the clients that might leave with them. The problem of knowledge management in a firm, however, transcends relationships and even the attorneys themselves.

In an article on legal knowledge management, the focus is on what has historically been called records management with an extended nod to efficiently managing electronic assets such as email. This addresses part of the problem of retaining expert knowledge in a traditional framework.

Forward-looking firms expand their definition of knowledge management to include the value of many types of knowledge – not all of which is legal or relational – and what might be lost to the firm if that information isn’t captured, preserved and able to be transferred as an asset.

Consider:

  • Automation: Begin to consider automating functions once considered human – think legal secretaries. One lawyer who lost the secretary upon whom he relied for support will be doing that job until a replacement is identified at a high cost of losing his billables while doing a job below his pay grade. What parts of that job can be automated or supported virtually to allow a bridge between the different humans who will be sitting in the desk thus retaining important functions beyond individual persons?
  • New tools for capturing, preserving and transferring knowledge: It’s not just what your employees know, it’s how they know it. If you wonder how your wunderkinds think, find out. Give them tools that capture their thought processes so you can replicate how they see the world. Those tools exist, and they allow younger associates to learn how their more experienced counterparts make decisions and craft arguments.
  • Corporate culture: A professional world is often a world of egos and personal value. No, an individual is not irreplaceable, but another valuable individual is different. It’s important to capture the essence of the value of a high-profile, charismatic person to replicate the style as well as the substance of that individual as part of the culture of the firm that you want to preserve to retain your competitive advantage with clients.

As in many other professions and industries, it is difficult to completely inoculate your organization from knowledge loss. Particularly in fields such as the legal profession where personal privacy and data security are acutely critical, capturing and retaining your expert knowledge has unique challenges. Yes, your departing employees will take relationships and tacit knowledge with them. You can’t prevent that. You probably already create barriers to prevent personnel of all types from taking digital assets with them. Beyond that, your employees are storehouses of value some of which may be captured and preserved to retain your edge in an increasingly competitive and cost-sensitive environment.

Is it time you do a thorough knowledge scan of your law firm to find out what you need to preserve and where you need to bolster your assets?

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

 

When They Don’t Follow the SOP

Point of SuccessA retired friend of mine, an engineer by profession, wrote a wonderful book last year looking back on his career that is full of the humor and irony of a life of assessing and mitigating damage at chemical plants. If you are a member of the broom brigade in the elephant parade, you’ve got stories. And he’s got stories.

One story in particular caught my attention as it highlights the challenges of managing the overzealous employee who – by virtue of wanting to improve upon the written instructions – took it upon himself to shorten the wait time in a chemical process. Okay, you see this coming, don’t you?

The story goes thusly:

Most manufactured chemicals are very sensitive. During the processing that creates them from a variety of other materials, any variation in the reaction conditions can lead to impurities, byproducts or even an undesired final product. This is particularly true with pharmaceuticals which are by their nature complicated and usually involve long, multiple steps…

Occasionally a batch (2,000 gallons) of the initial material in the production chain came up off-quality. It would have a haze of insoluble byproduct that was very difficult to remove and thus led to reworking expense as well as scheduling nightmares. The engineers went to work to identify the problem with the sub-standard batches. They checked all the measuring instruments and devices, recalibrated them, confirmed the cleanliness of all the equipment, verified the quality of the incoming materials, redid all the intermediate analytical checks, and so on and so on. In analyzing the data, they realized that one individual – let’s call him Al – charged all the off-specification batches. Charging is the process of adding all the materials involved in the chemistry into the reaction vessel.

Al was a very good guy, a conscientious operator, experienced and trustworthy. So, we descended on him to watch how he charged the materials. It seemed very straightforward. The medium of choice was water and the first process step required Al to add it to the vessel. While the water was being added, he began adding the other materials which came out of 50-pound bags. We found no problem with how he did this. There were no scraps of bagging material accidentally being added, no other problematic events.

Then the head scratching began. Al was apparently doing everything correctly. And yet the problem persisted. Then one genius suggested instead of focusing on the errant operator, we should see how the other operators did the charging process. Upon doing this, a glaring difference immediately appeared. The written instructions, created years ago, directed the operator to add the required amount of water to the vessel and only then begin adding the other components. Whomever designed the equipment installed a feed line that was not very large. As a result, it took about an hour to fill the required amount of water. So, what did the other operators do? They followed the instructions literally and took an extra break to fill their time.

We went back to Al.

“Why do you charge the materials while the vessel is filling?” we asked.

His answer would have warmed the heart of any supervisor.

“To be more efficient,” Al said matter-of-factly. “Why waste that time? This gives me a head start on the whole process.”

It really hurt to tell Al to stop being so concerned and dedicated, and to take an extra break just like all the other operators until all the water was in place. Needless to say, his feelings were hurt.

He took the extra break and the quality problem disappeared. The solution was perhaps not elegant, but it did the job. We all believe that greater efficiency is good, but we forget, at our peril, that it does not exist in a vacuum. –

From Stories from My Working Days by Richard Sakulich

Following the SOP and Reinforcing the SOP

In following the SOP, Al’s one apparently minor, inconsequential deviation was costly. A few lessons:

  • When your product does not meet specifications, are you checking to make sure all your employees are following the SOP to the letter? It is usually written exactly as required for a reason.
  • When the SOP is not followed to the letter, but the deviation is – as in the case of Al – the result of an overzealous employee trying to improve on the process, how do you handle it? In this case, Al was simply and gently corrected as his “cutting corners” was intended to be helpful. Don’t lose a good employee by embarrassing them or punishing them.
  • When the well-written SOP is not followed, it may require a slight modification to explain the process and avoid deviations. In this case, an extra sentence could be added to the instructions explaining, “The water must be filled before any chemicals are added, or the final product will not meet specifications.”

Even the best plans and most well-written SOPs will encounter an Al or two. And when this happens to you, note the process variation and address it in the SOP. There is always another Al waiting to improve upon perfection.

How do you address employees who don’t follow the SOP exactly as written?

Richard Sakulich’s book is not yet available for general purchase but if you would like a copy, contact me at workingwithsmes@gmail.com and I will forward your request to him. This is one of many great tales in “Stories from My Working Days” that will leave you giggling.

Use Your Subject Matter Experts as Part of Your Data Quality Initiatives

pankaj-patel-516482-unsplash  An article in the autumn issue of strategy+business  Digital Champions discussed the imperatives of linking all IT systems across the organization to be able to compete, excel and innovate. Certainly, as data is used for decision making, you need to link all pieces of your information architecture together in a way to create an intelligent organization. That means getting data quality right.

First, data quality requires essential tasks like making sure your inputs are accurate. And it goes even further than that. Getting data quality right means that your assessments of your data are also accurate. You’ve got to know what it means and how it is likely to impact you to truly experience the power of the information you are gathering.

For that, you need more than your IT team. Think strategic. Think long-term. And think about involving your experts from across the organization to make sure you are interpreting your information in a way that you truly have an intelligent system.

Here are a few ways to engage your experts in your cross-organization data efforts:

  1. Involve them in determining the parameters for quality inputs.

Your experts understand what defines accurate data in their own field. Involve physicians, chemists, engineers, human resource professionals and so on when you are creating parameters. The values you have been using may be outdated, or the ones set my standards organizations may not apply to your special case, for example.

  1. Ask them to help you rank projects and initiatives by importance

This is where your business teams are especially critical. Your executive team knows best the direction of your organization, so make sure to start there. Then drill down to find out the order in which things should roll out both from a practical perspective (you can’t implement B without making A operational) and which functions are most essential for running the business day-to-day so you don’t trip up your current operations.

  1. Make them part of your documentation teams

After you’ve built it, you need to capture what you’ve done so it can be maintained, built upon and improved over time. Documentation is essential to information management. People need to be able to use it, know where to find it and train others on it. For that, make sure your experts are involved in documenting your systems because they understand the logic behind them and can put the content in context. Sales managers need to be involved in documenting software used by their teams, and so on.

  1. Leverage their experience to help you integrate your initiatives across units, divisions, etc.

No man is an island, and no data capture effort can stand on its own, either. If it is important enough to capture and analyze, it has impact beyond your own part of the organization. Involve people who understand impact upstream, downstream and who know where the bridges are that cross the stream. Cross-check your data gathering efforts with the people who will use it or will be impacted by it in all pockets of the organization and outside the organization – like your customers, suppliers and wholesalers.

  1. Include them in your long-term strategic planning process

We usually think of strategic planning as the province of the executive team and the board of directors. When you dig down into an organization, you have experts in pockets everywhere who may hold vital pieces of information who may contribute to altering your plans or even redirecting them completely. Your experts in different areas will see things in the data and trends that impact your direction.

The quality of your data is only as good as the parameters you set when you determine what to collect, the integrity of the inputs, the way it is organized and interfaced, and the way it is interpreted. Each one of those phases requires experts across the organization who “get it” when it comes to their corner of the world. Find them and ask them.

Photo by Pankaj Patel on Unsplash

 

 

The Shift: From Training for Information to Training Information Processing

scott-webb-765610-unsplash  Prepare for a shift in the continuous knowledge management process. As your organization is growing, learning, innovating and bringing on new people, what you know and what you will need to know is constantly changing. The people who know what you need are always changing, too.

Much is being written about the differences in learning styles between Millennials and their younger colleagues about to join them in the workplace. We’re adapting to the fact that learning is more

·      On demand

·      Virtual

·      Mobile or platform-agnostic

·      Flexible

·      Bite-sized

A much bigger shift is on the horizon. NextGen workers really aren’t the same as their predecessors in ways that will cause a tectonic shift in training.

That’s because it is not just the “how we train” that’s changing. The immediacy of all knowledge and the instinctive information-seeking behavior of the youngest working generation also changes the content of our training. Instead of hiring people for what they know, companies will be hiring people for their ability to access what they need to know, how they are able to process it, relate to others and how they apply it. This impacts training in a multitude of ways beyond just making sure our training programs are short, accessible, relevant and just in time.

The next generation of learners – those just entering the workforce fresh out of college this year – have stronger virtual communication skills, online collaboration skills and intellectual independence than any generation before them. They multitask across platforms continually. You don’t need to show them or tell them how to do something. If it is online either inside or outside your organization, they will find it for themselves and figure it out on their own. These skills cross all demographics. This brave new streak changes the role of training from teaching people what to do and how to do it and morphs your training into the role of guiding them in how to apply it to meet your business goals.

Thriving companies will be teaching two main skills that will antedate all else: 1) critical thinking and 2) strategic thinking skills. In fact, a recent Food and Drug Administration guidance for compliance training stated that the #1 skill required today is the ability to think critically.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of training may be a bit premature. However, the reality of the death of “training as we’ve known it” is already a fact. Beyond guiding employees to the information that they need to know, companies will be working with colleagues to develop a culture of cultivating natural intelligence in ways that complement artificial intelligence to make the best possible use of the voluminous amounts of data available to them to make great decisions in real time across the organization.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash