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Are Your Technical People Seagulls?

Technical Staff That Just Flies In And Out Can Cause More Problems Than They Solve.

By Steve Schumacher

Technical departments like IT, Engineering, Geology and Environmental can cause a lot of problems if they do not act as partners with operations. If they simply respond to problems by flying into the plant, dumping a lot of advice and flying out again, it can leave operations people with a lot of new assignments and no expertise to get them done.

Over time, this approach causes operations people to discount technical people, see them as an added burden and they find ways to get technical problems solved without calling on them.

Over my years working with aggregate companies, the majority of the technical staffs I have worked with are highly intelligent, motivated people. They are oftentimes lacking in their interpersonal communication skills. For them, the main motivator in their line of work is to identify, analyze and provide solutions to problems.

Companies pay a lot of money for that expertise, but those same companies could get a lot more value for that money if they would teach their technical staffs to become true partners with operations.

True partners do not just come in, do a quick assessment, write up a report and leave. They listen very carefully upfront to what the operations people see as they issue. They identify not only the technical issues, but some of the people issues, like training, that may be the root cause of the problem. Rather than leaving operations with the solutions, they stay with them side-by-side until the issues are resolved.

To counteract the seagull mentality, and get your technical staff to become partners with operations, consider the following:

  • Get some feedback. Identify who your true internal customers are and ask them how the technical staff is perceived. This can be a somewhat threatening thing to do, so develop an anonymous survey that asks various questions about quality of work, relationships with employees, communication skills, timeliness of problem resolution, etc. Do not send this out to the whole company; only send it to operations folks that interact with the techies regularly.
  • Develop an improvement plan. Get the technical staff together and go over the survey results. Understand that some of the feedback may be quite negative, so be prepared for some emotions and/or defensive reactions. Send the message that any feedback is good, and that you now have a starting point for improvement. From that starting point, develop a list of 5-7 key action items that you are actually going to do to improve your survey outcomes.
  • Share the feedback. Go back to the operations people that gave you feedback and share the overall results, along with your action plans. This step lays the foundation for openness, becoming a partner, and shows that you are committed to improvement. Make sure you thank them sincerely for taking the time to give you feedback.
  • Develop operating standards. Based on the feedback you received, and the action plans you developed, put together with your staff a set of standards you will live by. Things like being good listeners, high-quality service delivery, responding in a timely manner and follow-through. Work with your team to put together an agenda template that should be filled out and sent to each location prior to your technical staff visiting. Always meet with the chief operations manager at the beginning of each visit to go over the agenda, and at the close-out of the visit.
  • Seek constant feedback. Ask your internal customers for continual feedback on how the technical team is doing. That discussion should be built into every visit, every meeting, and whenever there is a major project that needs cross-functional partnering. Set up cross-functional meetings regularly for operations and technical people to get to know each other better and work on big picture issues.
  • Provide new skills training. Remember, most technical people like being problem solvers. Many of them will not have received any interpersonal skills training before. Provide it for them. The best type of training for them involves real-life scenarios they will encounter, not off-the-shelf training. Help them understand different personalities at work and how they can flex and bend their own personalities to work better with differing personalities.

In summary, technical staff members are the lifeblood of your operation. There are a lot of productivity improvements and cost savings to be had by technical folks truly partnering with operations. It is not an overnight fix, but if you apply some focus and are persistent, you and the company will benefit immensely.

Leadership Shifts Focus FromTasks to Individuals
Managers are often task-oriented, and not necessarily focused on their employees. Leaders on the other hand are people-oriented; they work through and motivate their employees, utilizing their resources to perform assigned tasks in the most productive and profitable way possible. Many managers confuse management with leadership, and feel they are automatically leaders because they occupy a position of higher responsibility. While this assumption is often true, many fail to display active leadership qualities. The roles leaders fulfill are different than those of managers, although sound management practices are complementary to effective leadership.

While some individuals are natural leaders, most managers must evolve into leaders both by investing time and effort in developing their abilities and by adapting their management roles to a more flexible, effective leadership style.
Leaders learn how to harness the specific talents of every employee team member in driving efficiency and productivity. While this may appear to be more work than it's worth, effective leaders are able to produce higher levels of productivity with fewer problems than from simply using traditional managing techniques.

When leaders adhere to specific leadership roles they will foster trust, inward strength and a unity of purpose in the groups under their direction. As leaders, they will embrace their own personal responsibilities, understanding that anything is possible and attainable. They will recognize that each specific element is a stepping stone to the next that ultimately creates a transition from managing to leadership. -- Timothy Bednarz, Ph.D