Have you seen shortcuts take the place of good practice? Of course you have. Some shortcuts are extremely foolish, as evidenced by two disturbing trends in our industry - the move to self-inspection and the minimization of documentation. To be fair, both of these practices save up-front costs, but both are manifestations of the shortcut mentality. EC&M's own Fred Hartwell spoke against "self-inspection" in the August issue. Other editorials have called for a grass-roots movement for adequate documentation.
Shortcuts depend on luck, happen-stance, and damage control. They ultimately push expenses higher and performance lower.
Methodology, on the other hand, produces consistent results and depends on skill, planning, and the ability to stay the course. Methodology is dependable, cost-effective, and quality-enhancing. Methodology is thorough. Shortcuts are dangerous.
Consider two contractors. Bidlow Electric always quotes the cheapest. Bidlow takes the shortcuts of paying the lowest wage in town, foregoing the cost of training, and buying inferior materials. Bidlow's focus is on cost. Planwell Electric has a game plan to hire, train, and retain qualified people. Planwell's focus is on meeting customer expectations. Which contractor do you think has the more efficient, proficient, and conscientious workers? Which one do you think is more safety and quality conscious? Which one will cost you less? Which one would you want to work on your home? Should a lesser standard apply to the industrial or commercial facility your job depends on? Put in another context, would you select a heart surgeon based on the lowest bid?
Then there's the shortcut of "job-myopia," the belief that it is enough to know your own area of expertise. Today's engineer needs access to a working knowledge of finance, business law, interpersonal relationships, marketing, operations management, supervision, the science of quality, and the art of communication. Note: The engineer must know enough about those other areas to know when and how to bring the necessary skills to a project.
Consider the following situation. Shortcut Sam is an electrical engineer at a production plant. He knows the service breakers should be tested annually. Sam gets three quotes, and they all exceed $25,000. So Sam selects the cheapest one and sends a request for funding to his boss. The boss looks at the request, and turns it down. Sam grumbles, "they just don't understand." He's right: They don't.
How would Methodical Marvin do the same job? He knows nobody on the approval signature routing is an electrical engineer so he makes up for that. He knows he is competing with every other project manager for the same funds. Marvin realizes he is not well-versed in finance or accounting. So he goes to Carla, the plant controller, and asks for 20 minutes. "Carla, what do you need to know to justify spending this kind of money on my project?"
Carla the controller gives Methodical Marvin a list of items to address. She willingly helps Marvin, because she likes his approach to the problem. She tells Marvin she wants to see a trade magazine article or book excerpt on breaker testing. She wants to know how often this should be done, when it was done last, and what can happen if it's postponed six months.
Next, Marvin goes to his boss, Ernie the plant engineer. Ernie wants test specifications, how long it will take, and how many hours each service will be down. Marvin asks Ernie to find out what the approval people will be looking for. Ernie and his boss call Vickie the vice president, to discuss the proposed expenditure. Marvin has just made his boss look good, and of course, Ernie helps Marvin finalize the request. Marvin takes notes so next time he will know what information to gather.
Guess what? "They" approved the request, no questions asked. Still, Methodical Marvin isn't done. He knows the job will take an entire Saturday. So, he goes to accounting and information services (two groups who work lots of Saturdays) and gets three potential dates from them. He runs these dates past the utility (at this facility, the utility disconnects power), and they can accommodate all three dates. After that, he goes to the next production meeting and proposes a date. His first date fizzles, but the second one is good.
The example could continue, but the point is this: It's not that hard to be thorough. It requires mentally stepping through the job to be done, asking questions along the way, and taking adequate notes. Thoroughness adds value and reduces cost by allowing you to consider variables ahead of time and communicate with all affected parties. From our example, which person - Shortcut Sam or Methodical Marvin - would you rather work with? Which one would you rather trust your safety to?
When you consider proposals such as "self-inspection," minimized documentation, eliminating training and certification, or other forms of blind cost-cutting, you would do well to ask yourself, "Is this an improved methodology, or is it just a shortcut? Can I trust my safety, and that of my co-workers, to it?"
Editor's Note: As Editor-in-Chief, I am proud to introduce a new member of the EC&M editorial team: Mark Lamendola. Mark is a graduate electrical engineer with extensive experience in electrical maintenance and troubleshooting. He has an ANSI certification as a nuclear power plant Level II Engineer and is a master electrician. He has designed new electrical systems and handled start-ups for a plastic extrusion plant, coal and nuclear power plants, air traffic control towers, and many other projects. His wealth of experience and hands-on expertise will be very apparent in future articles he will be writing. Welcome aboard, Mark. - JAD.