The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #52, and was written by Greg.

Engineers love to solve problems. If your questions are intelligent and you appear conscientious and dutiful in understanding and using the information for a solution, the office door will generally be open for you. A person can tell if you are listening. I use a notebook to capture key ideas and details. Not only does this help in retrieval of the knowledge offered over time, the act of taking notes impresses upon the expert that what he/she is saying is important and will be used. I enter with an open mind and an eagerness to acquire knowledge that is often undocumented and even unspoken.

The discussion should not be driven in a preconceived direction. The conversation should be free to take new directions as insights are gained. Intuitive reasoning as a complement to analytical reasoning is the key to success. Of course, you need to make sure the original problem is addressed but there is a definite advantage in allowing the conversation to pursue unforeseen opportunities. When there is a pause, be quiet and wait; you need to let the expert have ample time to restart.

I have extensively used this simple approach in my Control Talk column for the last 10 years to capture and share the expertise of people whom I know have something to offer. The process is totally different than the interview method traditionally used. There is no list of questions, no agenda, and no sales pitch. For Control Talk, the conversation goes wherever it naturally flows. I usually end up with four pages of notes for a one hour conversation. The whole process is casual, open, and enjoyable. If you become a really good listener and promoter of conversation, you might become the next Oprah (OK, maybe not).

If some piece of advice proves to be wrong, you must inform the expert but don’t forget to mention what you learned in the advice that helped you to solve the problem. Make sure the expert remains part of the solution. This approach avoids making the expert defensive, shutting off future discussions. I have found that the greater the expertise, the greater the ego and the need to be right.

Learning from operators and maintenance technicians is extremely important because they are on the front lines. You generally need to establish a personal relationship before such individuals will open up. This requires time and patience. The best thing you can do is hang out in the control room and instrument shop and observe without interfering. Becoming an insider rather than an outsider is essential. The worst thing you can do is to offer your opinions unasked. You may need to be proactive in asking questions because the arenas of knowledge of engineers and technicians/operators are so different. You also need to seek observations more than conclusions because knowledge of causal first principles and automation systems is rare in operations and maintenance personnel. War stories often rule. Getting the observations of different shifts also helps with perspective, and further discussions with operations supervision and process technology support are important to sort out fact from fiction.

Concept: Egos and today’s fast pace of life tend to encourage sound bites, superficial understanding, and the reinforcement of established practices. When seeking the knowledge of others you need to “chill,” build relationships, truly listen, record what you have learned, and share results in a positive, constructive manner.

Details: Develop personal relationships with knowledgeable people in research and engineering, at suppliers, and in control rooms and instrument shops. Start a conversation to solve your problem. First choice is to see them in person, second choice is a phone call, and last choice is email correspondence. Ask an initiating intelligent question. Take time to listen and let the conversation go where it needs to go. Take notes. Share results and be generous in acknowledging the contribution of everyone involved. “Always asking why,” emphasized in Tip #1, is the essence of being an engineer.

Watch-Outs: Specialists may have a narrow view and may not realize when their knowledge is on the borderline of another expertise. Preconceptions may rule. There is also a “not invented here” obstacle on both a personal and an organizational level. Be aware that some experts will not be able to recognize or admit that their advice was wrong. If the dialog becomes negative, destructive, or prejudicial, quickly direct the conversation to a different topic. If the statements are clearly false, correct the person and state the truth clearly (but diplomatically). If recommendations are found to cause adverse results, emphasize the detrimental consequences to the point where the mistakes are not repeated.

Exceptions: While writing notes may be friendlier, more casual, and less intimidating, the future is digital. Voice recognition software can work well for capturing ideas if you can interject your thoughts by supplemental typing. The recording device must be inconspicuous and your typing not a distraction.

Insight: The knowledge of individuals can be openly shared if the environment is inquisitive and friendly and egos take a back seat to truth and problem solving.

Rule of Thumb: Develop personal relationships and engage in meaningful dialog to gain technical and first principle knowledge from research & development (R&D) and design, and what works and doesn’t work from operations and maintenance.

About the Author
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control and Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry. Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Presently, Greg is a part time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the virtual plant for exploring new opportunities. He spends most of his time writing, teaching and leading the ISA Mentor Program he founded in 2011.

Connect with Greg
LinkedIn

About the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., has worked as an instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he entered the systems integration industry and is currently working for Wunderlich-Malec as an engineering project manager in Kernersville, N.C. Hunter has executed thousands of instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms. Hunter earned a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University.

Connect with Hunter
LinkedIn

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #52.

Engineers love to solve problems. If your questions are intelligent and you appear conscientious and dutiful in understanding and using the information for a solution, the office door will generally be open for you. A person can tell if you are listening. I use a notebook to capture key ideas and details. Not only does this help in retrieval of the knowledge offered over time, the act of taking notes impresses upon the expert that what he/she is saying is important and will be used. I enter with an open mind and an eagerness to acquire knowledge that is often undocumented and even unspoken.

The discussion should not be driven in a preconceived direction. The conversation should be free to take new directions as insights are gained. Intuitive reasoning as a complement to analytical reasoning is the key to success. Of course, you need to make sure the original problem is addressed but there is a definite advantage in allowing the conversation to pursue unforeseen opportunities. When there is a pause, be quiet and wait; you need to let the expert have ample time to restart.

I have extensively used this simple approach in my Control Talk column for the last 10 years to capture and share the expertise of people whom I know have something to offer. The process is totally different than the interview method traditionally used. There is no list of questions, no agenda, and no sales pitch. For Control Talk, the conversation goes wherever it naturally flows. I usually end up with four pages of notes for a one hour conversation. The whole process is casual, open, and enjoyable. If you become a really good listener and promoter of conversation, you might become the next Oprah (OK, maybe not).

If some piece of advice proves to be wrong, you must inform the expert but don’t forget to mention what you learned in the advice that helped you to solve the problem. Make sure the expert remains part of the solution. This approach avoids making the expert defensive, shutting off future discussions. I have found that the greater the expertise, the greater the ego and the need to be right.

Learning from operators and maintenance technicians is extremely important because they are on the front lines. You generally need to establish a personal relationship before such individuals will open up. This requires time and patience. The best thing you can do is hang out in the control room and instrument shop and observe without interfering. Becoming an insider rather than an outsider is essential. The worst thing you can do is to offer your opinions unasked. You may need to be proactive in asking questions because the arenas of knowledge of engineers and technicians/operators are so different. You also need to seek observations more than conclusions because knowledge of causal first principles and automation systems is rare in operations and maintenance personnel. War stories often rule. Getting the observations of different shifts also helps with perspective, and further discussions with operations supervision and process technology support are important to sort out fact from fiction.

Concept: Egos and today’s fast pace of life tend to encourage sound bites, superficial understanding, and the reinforcement of established practices. When seeking the knowledge of others you need to “chill,” build relationships, truly listen, record what you have learned, and share results in a positive, constructive manner.

Details: Develop personal relationships with knowledgeable people in research and engineering, at suppliers, and in control rooms and instrument shops. Start a conversation to solve your problem. First choice is to see them in person, second choice is a phone call, and last choice is email correspondence. Ask an initiating intelligent question. Take time to listen and let the conversation go where it needs to go. Take notes. Share results and be generous in acknowledging the contribution of everyone involved. “Always asking why,” emphasized in Tip #1, is the essence of being an engineer.

Watch-Outs: Specialists may have a narrow view and may not realize when their knowledge is on the borderline of another expertise. Preconceptions may rule. There is also a “not invented here” obstacle on both a personal and an organizational level. Be aware that some experts will not be able to recognize or admit that their advice was wrong. If the dialog becomes negative, destructive, or prejudicial, quickly direct the conversation to a different topic. If the statements are clearly false, correct the person and state the truth clearly (but diplomatically). If recommendations are found to cause adverse results, emphasize the detrimental consequences to the point where the mistakes are not repeated.

Exceptions: While writing notes may be friendlier, more casual, and less intimidating, the future is digital. Voice recognition software can work well for capturing ideas if you can interject your thoughts by supplemental typing. The recording device must be inconspicuous and your typing not a distraction.

Insight: The knowledge of individuals can be openly shared if the environment is inquisitive and friendly and egos take a back seat to truth and problem solving.

Rule of Thumb: Develop personal relationships and engage in meaningful dialog to gain technical and first principle knowledge from research & development (R&D) and design, and what works and doesn’t work from operations and maintenance.

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