Unacceptable.

October 23, 2017 - Reading time: 2 minutes

I'm Jason Firth.

 

I'm not normally the sort to comment on current news stories (apparently I'm making a habit of it, though). I would rather my blog not become overtly political, and personally I think the idea of 'picking sides' in partisan nonsense is a great way to lose friends and make enemies.

 

However, when it comes to the stories coming out about Harvey Weinstein's reprehensible behaviour, I'm willing to make an exception.

 

In years past, I wrote about the environment women in technology and the trades might find themselves in. When I said "it won't be fair", I was referring to more passive behaviours I saw: looks that weren't appropriate for the workplace, comments behind people's backs and behind closed doors that weren't the most professional. What I was absolutely NOT referring to is overt sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace.

 

I want to be crystal clear: Overt sexual harassment or sexual assault is not acceptable in the workplace, period. There is no "Oh, work your way through it" in such situations -- such a person should face the legal and practical consequences of their actions, and nobody -- male or female -- has any reason to work under such conditions. It is against the law for a supervisor or manager to sexually harass a worker under any and all circumstances. There is no excuse.

In fact, in Ontario, "wanting it" isn't a defense. If a supervisor or manager is making advances against workers, that's unlawful harassment under the occupational health and safety act. Speak up. If that supervisor won't listen, then another will. We have a legal duty to.

Thanks for reading.


Do not pass go, do not collect $200

August 29, 2017 - Reading time: 2 minutes

I'm Jason Firth.

I don't make it a habit of commenting on local news stories, but this one really got under my skin: A car dealership demanded additional money from a customer after the sale concluded, and when the purchaser refused to comply, they remotely disabled the vehicle.

A consumer rights organization spoke to consumer rights law, but let's call a spade a spade here: this is a criminal act. Someone should be going to jail over this.

Perhaps you think I'm being melodramatic about this, but hear me out. This dealer accessed computer equipment they had sold -- equipment they no longer owned and were not authorized to access. They did so for the express purpose of following up on a threat they'd made: "either pay us, or we will hack and disable your vehicle."

This is exactly the modus operandi of the WannaCry hackers. They took over systems they did not own, and issued an ultimatum: pay us or lose access to these systems we do not own.

Besides the thinnest veneer of respectability, there is no difference between the two.

Well, there is one difference, but it is without distinction for legal purposes: whereas the WannaCry hackers had to force their way into systems, the auto dealership left a bomb in the car they once owned.

On a few occasions, disgruntled former employees have used old usernames and passwords to get into the systems of former employers. It's still very illegal and the fact that they had a username and password does not mean they are magically authorized to enter systems for which they no longer have reason to enter.

Both the WannaCry hackers and disgruntled former employees would go to jail for their crimes. The responsible people at this dealership ought to as well.

In the grand scheme of things, this should also be a warning to those of us who are in charge of digital systems: if a car dealership can commit extortion, if they can use a trap well laid to demand more money, then so can former employees. It's important then to make sure you revoke permissions immediately when people leave the company, and do routine audits to find hidden bombs before they can turn into a threat down the line.

 

Thanks for reading!

 


Blue skies, green Fields

August 24, 2017 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I'm Jason firth.

One commonality I notice when people ask me to help solve a problem is that quite often they explicitly limit solutions to "what sort of control systems can we install?" Type queries.

I immediately force myself to ignore the question as presented, because of the limits it puts on the creativity we can use to solve problems.

Occasionally, we can introduce a new and innovative control system to solve a problem, but just as often, we need to take a step back and re-examine the problem. Sometimes we can solve a problem by providing more data to operators, or by making it easier to follow procedure using their current user interface. Sometimes we need to inform rather than control. Sometimes we need to analyze in a new way. Sometimes it's a maintenance problem and fixing a chronic problem will help. Sometimes there's no problem at all and things must be operated on a certain way for safety or operational reasons.

By looking at problems outside of their ostensible technical scope, we can see the systems involved. We can ask questions we might not have asked otherwise: systems involve processes, equipment, operators, procedures, user interfaces, and control systems. Sometimes the answer comes from looking at the whole picture rather than a small piece.

Looking at problems this way also provides new opportunities. A few years back, I was asked to investigate problems with a certain Historian in gathering process critical data. What I discovered was that we were asking the historian to do something incompatible with its design. Historians consist of dozens of working parts, all of which need to function for data to be saved and retrieved. Instead of fighting the historian to conform, we created a new system which consisted of a single simple program with one purpose. Instead of requiring dozens of systems to work, suddenly we only needed two: retrieval and storage. Once we created this new system, we were able to extend it to automatically produce files for regulatory reporting -- an unexpected boon which saved the site time and increased accuracy.

This provides new opportunities for a shop. Many people want their shop to limit its influence to "what control systems can we install", but by looking at a strategy which embraces increased responsibility and increased work in service to other groups, new opportunities arise, because it's all connected.

Everyone wants to find a new and innovative and cool control system, but sometimes you need to step back from that well trodden lot, and look at the areas nobody is looking, where there are blue skies and green fields, waiting for someone.

Thanks for reading!


The next road

August 19, 2017 - Reading time: 4 minutes

I'm Jason Firth.

It's been a long while since I updated, because I've been transitioning into a new role: planning and supervising the instrument shop, and supervising the gas fitters.

The transition from front line worker to front line supervision has meant a whole new set of challenges, and a whole new viewpoint.

As a worker, road blocks are a nuciance. "They really ought to make this easier", I'd say. We'd all say it. Now, navigating those road blocks and keeping workers away from them is a big part of my raison d'etre. The more I can keep my guys working on jobs, the better job I'm doing.

There's a lot of road blocks out there, too. From inception, the question of whether work should even be completed ought to be answered by supervision and management before a worker is ever even close to being assigned the job.

In maintenance planning, there's a lot of processes that should exist and be followed to ensure the job is properly vetted. For corrective work, risk analysis can help justify work. For preventative maintenance, a methodology like Reliability Centred Maintenance can define and justify which work shall be done. For proactive maintenance, there are a number of failure mode analysis tools which can help dictate what work should be done in response to different unmanaged failures.

Following processes like these can help on two fronts: it helps ensure that front line workers aren't wasting their time on work that is going to be immediately vetoed, and it helps ensure that supervision and management have their finger on the pulse of exactly what is going on and why. Besides that, it ensures that appropriate documentation to support work exists so you can go back as part of a living program and see how your assumptions worked out.

Next up are planning road blocks. Ideally, you should have all the parts kitted for the job, you should have all the steps identified, correctly documented, and permits pre prepared as much as possible. If you can schedule the job as well and coordinate with operations to get the equipment in question, that's another major roadblock that front-line folks won't have to deal with.

During execution, your best people will have their better nature working against them. People will want help with their personal priorities, but the problem is if you're focusing on everything, you're focusing on nothing. It's important to keep your people on the task at hand. For those who have personal priorities, they need to enter their work into whatever work management process you have.

Looking at the big picture, the work management process is your most important tool. See the work, prioritize it, plan it, schedule it, execute it. This requires teamwork not just amongst your team, but amongst your site.

The "hey buddy system" is any time where someone sidetracks the work management process and tried to get their work done through side channels. This is sometimes appropriate for high criticality work, but usually it isn't appropriate. Every job that gets done on the "hey buddy system" is another job that went through the proper channels that got delayed. When someone successfully gets their job done this way, it reduces the credibility of the process, and increases the number of "hey buddy" jobs done.

This is the easiest roadblock for great workers to hit: the traffic jam. A hundred uncontrolled jobs hit at once, and in trying to keep everyone happy by focusing on all these jobs, none but the simplest jobs get done.

If I'm doing my job right, then everyone should win: the workers should be less stressed out because they can focus just on doing the work safely. Operations should have the right work happening at the right time. Supervision and management can complete their due diligence in preparing work, and a system of continuous improvement should help make the process consistently smoother.

To be honest, although I took the career track change for professional reasons, the reason I get out of bed in the morning (and one of the big reasons I applied for the job) is knowing how difficult life is on the front line when you don't have someone there willing to handle these problems.

As for a different perspective, You get to peek out from the front line and see (or even steer) the path ahead. Changing from being a passive observer of what's coming down the line, you can become an active participant.

I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say in the future, but this is what I've learned so far in my crash course on supervision.

Thanks for reading!


What does success look like?

January 1, 2017 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I'm Jason Firth.

 

I recently wrapped up a fairly major project, which I spoke of earlier: Implementing a large software package for 2 sites.

The story of this project can be seen as a tale of two cities, or of two different groups with fundamentally different requirements, and importantly fundamentally different ideas of what success looks like.

In one city, we have the 10,000km view. From this viewpoint, the project was a huge success. We successfully designed the project, successfully trained all the users, successfully deployed the software on time and under budget, and our metrics look great -- thousands of work orders created, thousands closed, as large increase in the number of active users of the software, and we can all pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

In another city, we have the close up view. From this viewpoint, the project was much less successful. The design was clunky and complicated, the training was incomplete and in some cases meaninglesss, the go-live day was a mess which never really got cleaned up, time and budget are irrelevant because of the former, as are metrics. Congratulations on foisting a broken system on a bunch of unwilling users, who are upset that we've taken their original tools away from them!

 

Let's look at another project.

Implementing a new control system, the spec comes back from engineering. We followed the spec completely, successfully implemented it, documented it, and patted ourselves on the back.

The problem? The specs were for a control system that wasn't going to work. After being implemented, the system was never put into service for any appreciable amount of time, because it didn't correctly control the process.

 

So, which viewpoint is correct?

Both. It all depends on how you define success. That's why it's important to define success properly to encompass both viewpoints: Both the micro and the macro. Is the project successful as a project, as something with a beginning, middle and end, with a budget and concrete goals? Is it successfull as an ongoing operation afterwards, will it actually be used, is it acceptably free of defects, does it actually do the intended job? Is it structurally good, is there ongoing documentation and training, continuous improvement set up in the systems at the facility you're at?

 

If you're able to succeed on the micro level, and at the macro level, then you've got something that's going to make you look good over time.

Thanks for reading!


This one is for the travellers

September 1, 2015 - Reading time: 2 minutes

I'm Jason Firth.

 

Fly-in Fly-out jobs are becoming commonplace in Canada, because the places where resources happen to be are not the places people want to live, or places where it's not practical to place a down, or simply because the skills you need are not in the same place as where you need them.

I've been flying a lot lately in Ontario, and so I've been flying a lot on Porter Airlines.

I noticed something interesting in their frequent flier program. They have a "goal meter" on their website for their VIPorter program. It shows the $1500 level before you get to the Passport level, and the $3000 level before you get to the Priority level, but after that it shows $10,000.

How bizzare? I decided to look further into it.

It turns out Porter has another level to their frequent flier program. It's invitation only, and requires a $10,000 annual spend on flights. It's called the "VIPorter First" program.

It looks like it has everything the VIPorter Priority status has, and in addition:

 

2 Free checked bags

Free premium seat selection

Free last seat guarantee on sold-out flights

Free same day changes to reservations

 

Now, another note for people who travel very frequently:

Your spending shows up on your VIPorter level when you have completed the flight, not when you book your flight. By contrast, your VIPorter level when you book the flight is the level the flight will be treated as in their computer system, not the level you're at when you fly.

This means that if you buy 6 months of tickets in advance in January, you won't VIPorter status for any of those flights, in spite of potentially spending more than the $3000 level with them, even once you've taken $3000 worth of flights. Your new status won't kick in until you've purchased a flight AFTER your status has activated.

 

Thanks for reading!