As a career manufacturing engineer, I’ve seen my fair share of different operations’ inner workings. Like any job, there were parts I loved and parts I hated, but when it was all said and done, some of my proudest life moments have been spent with my coworkers on a factory floor.
There was the time at the medical device plant when our team developed the idea of automating a process that had for years been done by hand. Many doubted that it could be done, but through careful planning, talented design work and dedicated people, we commissioned a robust machine that paid for itself in less than four months with literally no unplanned downtime in the first two years of operation. The day we unveiled it to the rest of the company, we played part of the theme from the “6 Million Dollar Man” over the plant’s paging system. As the tarps dropped away, I could see the pride on the team members’ faces, and I knew we’d accomplished something far more important than the initial goal of greater productivity.
Within the operations disciplines, we are often measured and judged by our ability to react. In any company I’ve ever been, it’s usually pretty easy to pick out the “core”—those vital few folks who are the ones everyone turns to when things just aren’t going right. These are the manufacturing engineers who, like the urban legend says, can walk up to a broken machine and place an “X” on the problem area within minutes of investigating. They are the quality engineers who can cut through blueprint contradictions that are preventing product progression. They are the lead people who just seem to have a knack no one else does to get that old tool to produce a good part… in short, the dragon slayers.
Those folks are indispensable to the operation to be sure. After decades in business, though, I maintain that there’s yet a higher level of achievement—one that gets a substantially lesser amount of attention, but is much more important to an organization.
At this level, problems are anticipated, recognized and mitigated before they even have a chance to make themselves known. This happens far more often than we know for the simple fact that the problem never surfaced in the first place to draw our attention to its existence. Each and every day, we all use products that perform flawlessly. It’s become so commonplace that we simply take it for granted. We assume that our coffee machine will heat up to a certain temperature, that our car will start on the first try, and that our computer will boot up shortly after we turn it on. We tend not to notice when things go right; instead, we celebrate when things go wrong and are fixed expeditiously. We recognize the dragon slayers yet never the unsung heroes, even though the latter accomplished the same goal as the former in a more efficient manner.
Let’s take some time to recognize the problems that never happened. Be thankful for those people in a plant or in an office somewhere who spent the extra time and effort to ensure the quality that you don’t see. They deserve our accolades and respect too, as they solved a problem for us before we even knew we had one.