Management and supervision Trades

Labor is not a fungible commodity

I’m Jason Firth.

There’s a statement that I’ve said on a large number of occasions, basically that labor is not a fungible commodity.

To understand what I mean by this, first we need to go to the definition of a fungible commodity. A commodity that is fungible is a commodity that is basically interchangeable. If you buy a block of gold, you don’t really care if it was Canadian gold or us gold or Chinese gold, the gold is gold. As long as the quality is what it says it is, you’re good. There are a lot of quantities that are fungible like this. Generally speaking, oil of a certain grade is going to be fungible. Wheat could be fungible. Canola oil could be fungible. There might be specific boutique applications where you absolutely want to have a certain country or a certain companies product, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, as long as you have the product you have the product and it doesn’t really matter where it came from.

Now let’s take a look at labor. You could get 100 people, and every one of them is going to be different. Most of them probably aren’t even going to be good at the thing that you want them to be good at, but let’s pretend for a minute that of those 100 people you have 100 instrument techs. Let’s even go so far as to say that they are 100 very good instrument techs. You’re going to have 100 completely different skill sets. In a broad sense, perhaps you’re going to have some people who are better at construction, perhaps you’re going to have some people that are better at maintenance, perhaps you’re going to have some people that are better at the programming side of things, perhaps you’re going to have some people that are better at the design side of things, instrumentation and process control are such broad categories that even if you take 100 really good people you’re going to end up with 100 completely different skill sets.

This is very important for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is that you cannot plan as if labor is a fungible quantity. If you simply think that you will throw hours of work at a problem I’m afraid you’re in for a rude awakening. If for example, you give a programming job to somebody who’s an old school instrument tech, it’s very likely that that old school instrument tech is used to turning a screwdriver and pulling on a wrench and rebuilding control valves, and they might be very very good, and they are going to struggle a lot on a programming job. If by contrast, you take one of the new breed of very technical high technology instrument techs and give them a sea can full of control valves to rebuild, there’s a good chance that they’re going to struggle with that.

Besides that, the level of planning that you need for an individual may be different. There are some people where in order to properly plan a job you need to go through every step, provide every drawing, provide every data sheet, kit every single tool. On the other hand, there are other people where for the same job you can give them very little and they’re going to be more successful than if you had tried to micromanage them. Having an idea of who’s going to be doing the job when you’re planning a job is quite important.

If you are dealing with a team that you intend to be working for a long time with, there is a little bit of wiggle room. Just because your old school instrument Tech would prefer working on control valves doesn’t mean that he can’t be trained, and just because your new school technologist would prefer to be working on a computer doesn’t mean that he can’t be trained to rebuild control valves. In fact, I would argue that over a long-term this is an ideal strategy.

Regardless, it’s quite important to realize that labor is not a fungible commodity, that you can’t just throw hours at a problem and expect to have the job done the same way, that not all skill sets are the same, that planning requirements are going to be different, and that long-term training can help people who aren’t good at one thing become much better at that thing so that you can end up with a better balance team. These are all things to keep in mind.

Thanks for reading!

Management and supervision

Two kinds of manager

I’m Jason Firth.

Lately my work has been closer to management than front line work. As a supervisor, my first duty is a safe workplace, but my second is enabling my workers to succeed, and that often requires management of one form or another.

I previously had a theory of management that I now fully believe to be fact: there are two types of manager.

The first is a subject matter expert. Such an expert knows intimately what is required to succeed at the job, and has the experience to steer a project in the direction in needs to go.

the second is a pure people manager. That kind of expert doesn’t know anything about the subject matter, but surround some self with people who do know. People that he trusts, who will help him make the right decision and who he will support.

I would argue that every manager is a little bit of both. You’re going to have situations where you are the subject matter expert in the room, where you have all the answers and everyone is looking to you because you’re the guy. You’re also going to have situations where even if it’s in your field maybe you just don’t know about this particular situation. if you’ve got enough going on, eventually you’re going to reach a spot where you have to defer to your subordinates.

A lot of people have a biased towards believing that one type of manager or another is preferable. Myself, I think that the key is providing the support that workers need to successfully complete the things that we ask them to do.

I use the word project a lot. Certain schools of thought will establish a project as this big thing that requires project teams and all kinds of resources, but in a lot of cases something that I would consider project doesn’t include all that. It can’t, or your company would simply go out of business for being so top heavy. Despite that, for these mini projects there is still a way that you need to manage them. Even for something absolutely tiny, you need to make sure that the materials are available, that the manpower is dedicated to the project, that there’s a plan to get from point a to point b. The difference between the project that is properly managed and a project that isn’t when we’re talking about these small scale projects can still be the difference between success and failure. you can throw a thousand people at a job, but if you’re missing a quarter inch nut everything stops. You can have all the quarter inch nuts in the world, but if you don’t have a person who knows how to turn a wrench, that job isn’t getting done. Even with all the people in the world, and all the materials in the world, and all the tools in the world, if you don’t know what you’re doing because no one has the information to succeed at the task, that job isn’t getting done.

Both types of manager can help push through these projects. Subject matter expert can help with the planning themselves, and exactly what’s going to be required in terms of manpower in materials. People managers can draw on the resources around them to find the right person to plan the job and the rate people to figure out what’s going to be required to get a job done. besides that, they will make absolutely certain that the people that help them succeed feel appreciated and well-regarded and compensated for their extra efforts.

Expect me to talk a lot more though this sort of thing in the future, as my role in the world changes.

Thanks for reading!

Management and supervision


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.

Management and supervision

The next road

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!

Management and supervision

What does success look like?

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!

Management and supervision

This one is for the travellers

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!

Management and supervision

5 reasons I gave up being an instrument guy (for now)

I’m Jason Firth.

Recently, I accepted a new role within my organization for a while: I’m assisting with a project to deploy a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. My role is to bring maintenance expertise to the project specific to the plant I’m stationed at.

When I told my team about it, my partner was confused: “Why don’t you want to be an instrument guy anymore?”, he asked.

In fact, it’s exactly because I’m an instrument guy and because I plan to continue being an instrument guy that I accepted the role!

Let’s look at some of my reasons.

1. Instrument technicians are information mongers.

There’s no two ways to put this: Instrument Techs, or at least good instrument techs, are information mongers. Every piece of information we gather is another tool in our belt that we might make use of.

This project is going to leave me and my shop with comprehensive lists regarding equipment and maintenance for everything on site. We’re going to have access to more people and more information than we ever would have had as just instrument guys. That sort of information is invaluable at moments you’d never have imagined — because until you have it, you never consider it.

Everything is connected, and the more information you have, the easier you can make the connections yourself. The more you can make those connections on your own, the more effective you can be.

2. Potential synergies between these two roles.

I always hate to use the S-word, but it’s absolutely true. I’ll explain.

Work that’s been done as part of other completely unrelated projects suddenly becomes relevant, and you don’t have to do anything but cross-reference. This means the project benefits from that work. Work I previously did on SCADA, establishing equipment taxonomies and working within constraints, suddenly becomes extremely important because it’s already done.

As well, work that’s done today may have a dramatic impact on future trades projects. In particular, having a say as to how business critical systems are set up on Day 1 means those same systems are structured in a way that might facilitate the information’s re-use later. All it takes is a little vision, and you can make everyone’s life easier in those future projects.

3. The wrong person doing this can sink entire shops.

The Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) aspect of ERP is one of the most important elements of a modern shop. It facilitiates communication between operations and trades, it stores information about the history of work done, it keeps track of costs and of time spent on jobs, and it plays a key role in material management.

If the wrong person is setting up the system, communication between operations and trades may become ineffective, history may be lost or unusuable, costs can’t be tracked, and materials can’t be found. All this adds up to a skilled worker not spending time using their skills.

4. The right person doing this can let us spend more time being tradesmen.

Along the same lines, if the right person sets up the system to its potential, communcations between operations and trades (and between trades and other trades) may be enhanced, history may become a key tool in predicting failures or detecting current failures, costs and time spent on jobs can be effectively measured and managed, and materials will always be where they need to be when they’re needed.

Modern ERP systems also allow supervisors to assign jobs to certain individuals, and to allow those individuals to see their work queues on mobile devices, so the work is always at their fingertips. They can allow test results to be stored and historized immediately without additional paperwork. They can allow work completion comments to be added directly when a job is complete, increasing the speed and accuracy of the history. They can even allow documentation to be carried around for instant access to key information.

All this adds up to one thing: Tradesmen spending less time on paperwork, and more time on trades. That’s good for the business, it’s good for the tradesmen, and it makes everyone’s life a little easier.

5. Ultimately, you need a voice from the front.

There’s a lot of perfectly reasonable sounding suggestions out there.

It’s easy to sit around a desk and come up with this stuff, and the technology is amazing, you can implement anything you want. The problem is, how will it affect someone on the front line? It’s those people who are going to keep your plant running day to day, and even smart people, with the best of intentions, can make a decision that works very well in theory, but is disasterous in practice. Someone from the front line is absolutely neccessary. You need a canary to tell you when things could get bad.

Thanks for reading!

Management and supervision

Big legal in engineering technology land

I’m Jason Firth.

One part of the OACETT and CTTAM codes of conduct is a responsibility to learn the applicable laws and codes to your field. To that end, I often load up CanLII and search for information relating to the field of engineering technology, and people certified as engineering technologists.

I found this 1996 case, and it’s interesting to me.

This case relates to the construction of a paper mill in Alberta in the late 80s. There are 3 main groups: A contractor called Dilcon, an engineering company called NLK, and a corporation created solely for the purpose of the construction of this new paper mill, called ANC.

What is disputed is the amount of money owed to Dilcon by ANC. The amount disputed is quite substantial, with Dilcon claiming they are owed a further $20 million dollars, and ANC claiming they have overpaid by $10 million dollars.

At first glance, Dilcon sort of accepted a dangerously vague contract: They placed a bid on a job for which the detailed engineering was only around 10% complete. They came up with a fixed bid for a contract for which scope wasn’t even remotely defined yet. On the basic merits, this turned out to be as bad an idea as it sounds: In one area, the amount of work turned out to be literally twice as much as originally proposed, and in another area, it was 25% greater.

Luckily for them, the engineering company was set as the facilitator in contract measures, and acted in a fair and reasonable manner, allowing different additions to be considered as “extras” despite the fact that ANC ostensibly asked for a “no extras” contract.

The case provides a fairly in-depth look into how one major contract was negotiated and carried out, including a lot of detail about what looks like a fairly well done change management process. (the case centered around changes, but I don’t think the problems related to the processes in place)

In addition, it gives painstaking details about the consequences of not considering lead times.

I started my career as an engineering technologist working in an engineering department, designing and managing projects and ordering parts. Later on, as a technician, I had broad latitude to manage my projects and order parts as well.

One lesson I learned is this: Stakeholders want to ignore lead times, and will pressure you to do so. However; especially if you’re working in a remote site or remote community, failing to pay attention to lead times will result in looking like an idiot and wasting the company’s money.

In this case, NLK took too long to deliver certified engineering documents, which caused several vendors to be delayed in delivering materials. In other cases, the vendors simply took long to deliver, with one vendor taking 5 months longer than scheduled to deliver a key part. In another case, Dilcon was fully mobilized on site for months before an acceptable number of pipes had been delivered. By not properly accounting for the amount of time it would take for tasks to get done and for parts to arrive, the entire project suffered massive cost overruns in the millions of dollars.

Of course, you could say “But you should be able to plan based on the best possible information!”, which seems like a great idea on paper. In practice, if you don’t have any good reason to believe that a part will be at your site, I don’t think it’s a good idea to start lining up huge resources. All it takes is a lack of a single critical component and suddenly you’re not just not done, but you’re down.

That’s what happened in this case. The engineering wasn’t complete, the shipping wasn’t complete, the parts hadn’t arrived, and they’d just mobilized a bunch of trades workers to stand around doing nothing for months at a time.

This sort of bad planning has massive consequences. In this case, Dilcon did manage to get their contract completed in time, but at huge cost: The court found that they were owed a full 10 million dollar more by ANC — Considering the original contract was under $20M, that’s a huge cost increase — and all that was needed to avoid it was for someone to say “Slow down! We’re going to make sure we’re ready before we start signing contracts and hiring people.”

Thanks for reading!

Management and supervision

Certified Engineering Technologist? Not here, you aren’t!

I’m Jason Firth.

There’s one thing most people don’t know about the law that they should: The law isn’t the same everywhere.

Often, people will talk about “how things are”, as if their experience in their location describes everyone’s. That’s incorrect, and it’s quite dangerous.

In an earlier entry, I talked about what it takes to become a Certified Engineering Technologist, and in another entry, I talked about what it takes to become a red seal Journeyman. I know first-hand about these things because I went through the process in 2013.

However; in 2013, I also made a mistake. I applied for, and achieved, my Certified Engineering Technologist designation in Manitoba. At the time, I didn’t know if I was covered nationwide, so I called the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologists and asked if I could use my designation across the country. They told me it was fine.

They were not being entirely truthful. In 2010, the governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario split from the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologists to create Technology Professionals Canada, a new organization dedicated to the profession of Engineering Technology in Canada.

As a result, and as a result of the wording of Section 11 of the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists Act, 1998, S.o. 1998 C.Pr7, the use of the CET designation is restricted and it is an offense for anyone who is not a full member of OACETT to use the title.

Not realizing that the title didn’t automatically transfer like a red seal, I used my CET title in Ontario, only to receive a Cease and Desist letter from OACETT’s lawyers.

In my case, I asked about my options as a member of CTTAM, and the lawyer told me:

1. You can maintain your primary membership in Manitoba and apply to OACETT as an out-of-province member. You will pay full dues to Manitoba. You will need to pay out-of-province member’s dues in Ontario which are one-third of what a regular member pays;

2. You can transfer your membership to Ontario; or

3. You can transfer your membership to Ontario and maintain out-of-province status with Manitoba (assuming Manitoba has this provision).

After paying a small fee, I was able to transfer my membership to Ontario without any further difficulty. It took about a month, during which I stopped using my designation in Ontario.

I ended up taking the third option, transferring my primary membership to the province I practice in, and using an out-of-province membership (at a cost of about $100/yr) in Manitoba.

Something to keep in mind!

Thanks for reading!

Management and supervision

You need your own competence!

I’m Jason Firth.

So, now that oil has dropped dramatically, oil companies are discovering something I’ve always said: You need your own competent people.

The oil and gas industry has found out in a very abstract way: They’ve realized huge cost overruns on projects since they decided to let other companies monopolize engineering competence. When they had their own people working on the projects, they didn’t have the same cost overruns.

There’s a number of reasons why this is the case.

Let’s start off with what I like to call institutional memory. This is the effect of having people who have worked in your facilities for years making decisions about those same facilities. You can’t outsource institutional memory. It’s something that either belongs to you, or is lost. When you’re making decisions that affect the short-term viability of a project or the long-term viability of a facility, there’s a million tiny facts which you need to know, and you won’t learn in a 2-day site visit. Those folks don’t know about the fifteen other solutions that were tried on a problem until the sixteenth worked. They’re stuck asking why something is done a certain way. Sometimes this means they’ll be going back to the failed solution 1.

Then, there’s the pure question of “Who do you work for?” — An outside company will always be looking out for their own bottom line. If a conflict arises between the interests of your company and theirs, they are going to be more likely to act in their best interests.

Along those same lines, if you’re dealing with your own talent, then you can make sure you’ve got the best talent on the most important jobs. I’ve seen it in the past where an outside firm will wow a client with the A-team, then once the contract is signed, send in the Z-team.

Speaking of contracts: Of course everyone agrees that scope creep is dangerous. However; there’s a certain flexibility that comes with dealing with your own people that allows economies. For example, I was working on one big project with an engineering firm, and another different project was going on at the same time. The engineering firm refused to do anything that wasn’t part of the plan without negotiating a scope change and fee increase. Meanwhile, I plugged two cables in, successfully connecting the projects together, and changed a couple lines on a CAD drawing.

The formality of dealing with another company can also be a danger when you rely on other firms to have your competence. While working for a company, there’s been a number of times when I’ve been working on some skunkworks for a company alongside the main, official jobs. Skunkworks is a term that comes from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works development group, which developed the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor. The designation is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. The concept of that autonomy and relaxation of bureaucracy is incompatible with the formality of a business to business arrangement.

All of these problems reduce economies and prevent innovation within companies, and facilities. You can’t outsource your institutional memory to another company. Your employees will always be the most aligned to your interests. You are only in full control of your own employees. Contract work can be inflexible and cause large cost increases. You can’t give other companies autonomy the way you can give your employees autonomy.

Thanks for reading!