It was July 2002, and I was working in a corporate office as a risk engineer for a chemical corporation. It was a high anxiety time. One of our chemical plants had an accident; a gas turbine generator engine had a catastrophic failure, a multi-million dollar accident. The identical gas turbine beside it was still in operation, and there were possibilities that it could also have problems. Shutting it down would cost the company millions of dollars in lost electrical power revenue.
My boss walked into my office and stated, “I need you to come to a meeting with the president of the company and his staff. With your technical expertise you should be able to convince him to shut down the second gas turbine generator”. The president of the company was “old school”, and known to have a hair-trigger temper.
As we walked towards the elevator to go to the meeting my boss exclaimed, “By the way, I need to be upfront with you and let you know that we will both probably get sacked today”. Those words hit me straight in the gut; I was in the USA on a work visa, so losing my job didn’t just mean finding a new job, it would mean I would have to sell my house and move country with my wife and two young kids. My boss was on the verge of retirement, he did not have much to lose.
We took the executive elevator to the top of the high rise corporate office, and arrived in the board room which was deathly quiet. The president of the company sat at the head of the table with a bulldog expression. His staff was all looking at their shoes. Heads were apparently already rolling.
With my heart audibly thumping in my chest, I said, “The second gas turbine most likely has similar blade corrosion as the failed one. The insurance carriers have told us to shut it down, as they are removing insurance coverage. As a responsible company we need to shut it down – now”. My head spun as I was aggressively challenged. I do not remember the questions, I do not remember my answers, I just remember taking the elevator back down silently with my boss. We had not been sacked, and next day we heard that the suspect gas turbine generator was shut down overnight. Upon disassembly it was found to be on the verge of failure.
Courage for engineers is not always about facing physical danger. Courage is also about following your instincts, and leading with your ethics. I remind myself frequently about the reasons I became an engineer – fascination with solving problems, identifying unique ways to solve problems, providing designs that follow good engineering practices, designs that prevent accidents and keep people safe- the list goes on. There will be times in your career when your instincts and ethics will be challenged. You may be pushed towards taking unqualified risks, taking the fast and cheap design or repair route, rather than using your acquired skills to do things properly.
In my opinion, the true engineers are those that have impeccable ethics. This brings me to where I see engineers are courageous. I see engineers in project meetings who have passion, integrity, and high ethics. They live in a world of limited resources with people pushing them from all directions to take shortcuts, to take the easy route, to take the low cost route, to ignore the rational thinking and the reasons that they originally decided to go down this career path.
I see engineers fighting for the right, fighting for the design that will keep people safe, fighting for the design that will allow them to sleep comfortably at night with the knowledge that they have maintained ethical attitude. I have so much respect for engineers that are not afraid of taking the unpopular decision. I have worked with engineers on breakdowns where incredibly creative solutions got things up and running.
What Can We Learn From This?
It is critical that engineers speak openly and are rewarded and respected for doing so. Imagine a room full of engineers where most of them are not engaged and are hesitant to provide input on a problem due to a history of being “burned” for suggesting an unpopular or supposedly ridiculous option. Envision a workplace where your promotion is based on you following the popular vote rather than speaking your mind. Imagine the wasted resources in the room. In a world of limited resources and competitive pressure, why would any company choose to allow this dangerous inefficiency to fester?
What can happen if engineers do not feel a need to speak up and provide creative input?
a. A lower cost or lower risk option may be missed
b. Management may think they have consensus on a path forward, but the thoughts in people’s heads would have let them know otherwise
c. Increased turnover of valued employees. Employees do not feel important to the group or organization and may choose to work for the competition
d. Loss of profits
e. Energy levels and creativity are sucked out of the workplace
f. Respect and trust continue to erode
g. Deadlines get missed
h. Teams that are not cohesive become inefficient
i. Customers end up with substandard designs or workmanship and the company’s image is eroded.
Ten Ways Exceptional Workplaces Keep Engineering Groups Engaged:
1. Create a working environment where people are recognized and rewarded for coming up with unique ideas
2. Reward and recognize “think outside the box” creativity
3. Hire people with exceptional communication skills and impeccable ethics
4. Train employees on negotiating skills, listening skills, and conflict management
5. Embrace respect and trust
6. Create an aura of balanced fun-energy that helps the creative juices flow
7. Celebrate success as frequently as possible
8. Evoke a culture where employees will speak up freely when they identify that someone may be making a bad decision
9. Learn to read body language to identify signs of disagreement, confusion, etc. Take the time to ask them if they have a concern or need clarification
10. Negative attitudes of individuals or groups should not be left unaddressed. Mentoring, coaching and/or eliminating are some options
Dave – You challenge all my stereotypes of engineers! I never knew they were crusaders for safety and creativity. Seriously – the passion and sense of mission you describe – I had no idea.
Keep an eye out for my blog on the Titanic engineer officers in the next month or so. Those officers volunteered to stay in the enginerooom and keep the electrical power on to allow the distress signal to be sent via morse code and also to keep the lights on as long as possible to allow passengers and others escape. Every single one of them perished but they left a legacy that all engineers can choose to build upon. In a previous career, a long time ago (when I had hair!!), I was chief engineer officer on cargo ships and can relate to engineers doing incerdibly brave things. I have been through many storms, 4 major fires (two on a passenger liner) and 1 explosion. I saw engineers doing incredible brave actions.