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A Conversation

A Conversation

A Conversation

A Conversation
(What if engineering companies thought about training this way?)
By James O. Pennock

The following article is a work of fiction. It portrays a hypothetical conversation that has not happened yet.  The setting is a private executive box at a major sports stadium before the start of the final championship game.  The venue was selected by these two gentlemen not only for the entertainment value but also for the privacy.  There are only two people present in the private "Sky Box" suite.  The first person (we will call Adam) is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of one of the world's largest EPCM companies.  The second person ((we will call Bill) is the President of Project Operations (PPO) for one of the world's largest energy conglomerates who is currently finalizing a bidder list for the FEED phase for their next "World Class" mega project worth upwards of 5 Billion US dollars.
To set the scene, the game has not started yet and the two men have spent the past two hours getting to know each other and watching the pre-game activities on the field.  
Down below both teams have been on the field, one team at one end of the field and the second team at the other end.  They have been going through various warm-up exercises and mock plays.

Now let's pick up the conversation.

Bill: Adam, I really appreciate that you were able to get tickets to this game.  We have had the privacy we need and yet we will both be able to enjoy our favorite sport.
Adam: Oh! It was no problem getting tickets, I own stock in the home team and this is the company's Sky Box.
Bill: That's great!  Say, I have just been thinking.  Look at those players down there.
Adam: Yah, lots of talent worth a lot of money.  What were you thinking?
Bill: Well, Think back a few years.  Every one of those men started playing this game in the street in front of their house when they were just kids.  They may have played this game for many years in the street and sand lots.  Then in Secondary or High School they played three or four years in a more formal organization with real coaches and a play book full of plans for success.  Later they attended a University where they played for four more years at an even higher level with more complex problems and adversity.  After that the lucky ones are drafted by the professional organizations much like these two teams who will play here today.
Adam: Yep! That's the way it is in the big leagues.
Bill: Adam, don't you think there might be more to the picture than just that.
Adam:  What do you mean?
Bill:  Well here is the way I see it.  The players learned to play this game as that kid in the street.  Then went on to the next level and the next level and the next level each with three months of pre-season training, two-a-day workouts, club-house meetings going over the playbook.  All week between games they have more two-a-day work-outs and meetings to review post-game films to discuss what they did well and more importantly what they did wrong.  They also review game films of their next opponent to learn the strength and weaknesses they will see.  On game day, just like what we have seen down there they warm up, run patterns, practice kicks and do special drills to sharpen their timing and focus.  They knew how to play this game when they got out of High School.  They knew how to play this game HARD when they got out of the University.  Don't you think that all this training now is a big waste of money and time?
 Adam:  GEE! Bill you can't be serious!  That training for those guys is absolutely not a waste of time and money.  I don't know how you could even think such a thing.  That training is what makes a winner.  That training in what got these two teams here today.  And as a stockholder of I want a return on my investment.  I take an active interest in my teams training schedule.  If our coach did not have pre-season training or weekly training or pre-game warm-ups he would soon find himself out of a job.  And you can take that to the bank!  Yes sir! Training is what makes a winner.
Bill:  I'm glad to hear that's the way you feel.  So tell me what kind of training do you give your new employees?
Adam: Training, new employees?  We don't need to train new employees.  We hire only the best.  We bring them in, give them the HR manual, set them at a desk, provide them with a computer and they are expected to go to work.
Bill:  So for any new employee you believe what they say on their resume, right? So you expect each of them to read your mind and know exactly what you expect and when you expect I, is that right?
Adam:  Of course!  What else can you do?
Bill:  What do you do about current employees?  As you well know technology is always moving up and there are new thing to learn.  Do you have any kind of a training program to raise or improve the level of expertise of your current technical and management personnel?
Adam:  No, no we feel that in-house training is just a waste of time and money.
Bill:  If your company was to make it on to our bidders list and your bid was chosen, what kind of Pre-Project training would you conduct to insure the team, and I mean all of the team is all using the same play book?
Adam: We hold the Project Manager responsible for those things.  
Bill: Well then let me ask you this.  After the project has been completed, what kind of Post-Project meeting do you hold?  Do you have any kind of a review with ALL of the project members to review what you did well and what you need to do better the next time?
Adam:  Really, Bill I think that is just a waste of time and money.

At this point the game started and the two men turned their attention to the contest.  Both teams played hard as the lead switched first from one team then to the other.  At halftime the visiting team had just a three point lead as the two teams went to the locker rooms for their mid game rest and pep talk.  

We pick up the conversation again.

Bill:  So what you are saying is that you think that the game down there on that field today is more important than my five billion dollar project.  Is that right?
Adam: What are you saying?
Bill:  Well just before the game started we were talking about training and you said that training is a waste of money except for people who play games.  With that attitude I must assume that you think that the game down there on that field today is more important than my five billion dollar project.  Is that right?
Adam: Whoa! Now I see what you mean but Bill, I have never seen any kind of training in this business that replicates what a sports team does and I doubt that you have either.
Bill: Not true Adam.
Adam:  Do you mean to tell me that someone in this industry, one of my competitors has "spring training" for new hires?
Bill: Yes Adam that is just what I am telling you, "spring training" and more.  Here read this.

Adam takes the paper Bill offers and reads:

"As a new employee you can expect 80 hours of formalized discipline specific training including current company computer programs and another 80 hours of informal training to familiarize yourself with our clients, processes and nuances of the jobsite environment.  You'll also be assigned a mentor to help you acclimate. For employees who show initiative, you will be rewarded with promotion opportunities and the vast array of career paths existing within our Company framework."
Adam:  Wow! That must be very expensive.
Bill:  In my discussions with them they shared that this program is not the only thing they do.  Before every project starts they pull the assigned management and supervision team together and spend as much as a week putting together a Project Execution Plan.  They review past projects done for this Client.  They review past projects of the same type for pitfalls and lessons learned. They also review past projects that were installed in the same geographic region and climate conditions. The management and supervision is held responsible for passing on all the key project issues as new people are assigned to the project.  And that is passed right down to the lowest level of each member of the team.
 At three strategic points during the project: the end of the FEED stage; at the 50% point of detailed design and at the start of construction there are meetings held on the project for management and supervision to insure that every one is "on the same page."  
After the project is completed the management and supervision again come together to go over the lessons learned from the project.  The outfall of this project closeout meeting is used by the next project and by discipline departments to update and refine their training program.
Adam: Again I say that must be very expensive.
Bill: I would bet that they don't spend as much on that program as your company spends every year on this "Sky Box" and the other support you are giving to that team down there on the field.   That is why I said that you think that the game down there on that field today is more important than my five billion dollar project.  

The bottom line of this fictional conversation is about the relationship of spring training in professional sports vs. technical, administrative and management training in the process plant EPCM profession. What do you, the readers think?  Could this conversation take place?  What importance should an EPCM company place on training?  Will Adam's company make the bidders list?  Makes you stop and think doesn't it?

The author is a part-time consultant inTampa, Florida. He has more than 45 years of process plant piping engineering and design experience. His experience includes assignments in the design office, the training room, various job sites and pipe fabrication shops.
He is the author of the book "Piping Engineering Leadership for Process Plant Projects" Gulf Professional Publishing, April, 2001, ISBN 0-88415-347-9 and the article "Process Design Team: Thinking outside the box" Hydrocarbon Processing, December 2003.
He is semi-retired and lives in Florida where he plays tennis and responds to piping questions when asked


RE: A Conversation

Of course you are right but you see, EPCM is where I came from.

RE: A Conversation

One could, of course, argue that the salary configuration is quite different, i.e., as a player, you're paid for 3 hrs/game and the practices/scrimmages, etc., while there is no equivalent in the technical world.  A professional player wouldn't have much longevity playing 40 or more hours per week, 52 weeks a year.  Just points out yet another inequity between sports and engineering.


FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies

RE: A Conversation

IRstuff, I tend to agree.  While I think most Engineering places could and probably should do a better job of training their staff I'm not sure it's fair to make too close a comparison to sports.

I'd find it hard to believe an engineering company that spent say 36 hours a week training their staff and 4 hours actually working them would do very well, however this is more or less what sports teams do (without really allowing for the off season).  A company that spent 40 hours working and 0 training would almost certainly do better.


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RE: A Conversation

I think another flaw that we engineers have as a group and allows for companies not to train us is that we tend to do it ourselves on our own time/money.
Very seldom have I approached management and asked for reimbursement of a course. On top of that, every spare moment I have (albeit not many) I spend looking up new stuff or reading technical and teoretical manuals/books.
Studying is part of our daily lives and tends to come natural after burning eyelashes through school.

<<A good friend will bail you out of jail, but a true friend
will be sitting beside you saying " Damn that was fun!" - Unknown>>

RE: A Conversation

Who garantees well trained employees aren't bought away by people like Adam?
He has an advantage in not invested in training.

RE: A Conversation

Great Post.  One additional analogy to make with regard to training, and team building:  I often use the analogy of the all star team.  Excellent individually, but have never played together, and can therefore loose to a team of less capable individuals, but because they have played (practiced) together before, they are a better team.  Isn't that really the engineering, and construction team challenge?  We'll never have only all-stars, and yet, that's OK, because ultimately we are judged on our performance as a team, not how well we do individually. I managed a team of 120+ engineers, and told this story at every opportunity.  Teach each other, check other, don't keep score, but focus on making sure what leaves the office is the best we can offer.  Our clients don't care who made the mistake, they want no mistakes!  We can offer better if we work together.  We also did weekly lunch meetings, and had both junior and senior engineers present.  For many, this was their first public speaking, and a perfect opportunity to learn that skill, speaking from a position of strength about a topic where they excelled.  Let's face it, you'll never make a senior position unless you can present credibly.  This killed two birds with one stone, and cost no money.  Everybody wins.  

RE: A Conversation

That's very good, I like it.
Thanks for the input.

RE: A Conversation

As Unotec said, we as engineers certainly have made it a point to seek out our own training and development.  By setting our own goals and seeking to keep up in our fields, we have somewhat inadvertently let businesses off the hook.  Particularly in this very difficult economic climate, many companies are cutting back on training even more.  They certainly want you to keep up with innovations in your field and expect you to continue to contribute in even greater amounts to the company's knowledge assets.

In addition to continuing professional development, the technical nature of the field leads many employers to avoid even new-hire training and development.  That is short sighted for the employer, as even a small amount can decrease ramp-up time for new engineers as well as reduce early turnover.


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