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Managing Engineers = Herding Cats?

Managing Engineers = Herding Cats?

Predictions about the future of manufacturing are downright whimsical nowadays, but one we keep hearing is that there will be no more factory workers. Instead of hundreds of factory hands working on the line, a modern factory will have eight engineers communicating deeply with IIoT machinery in cool, quiet rooms.

If this comes about, it will be a big change for plant managers.

Right now, engineers can be a quiet presence around the factory, doing important things in the background, called onto the floor when needed. An introverted engineer, the old saying goes, looks at his shoes when you talk to him.

An extroverted engineer looks at your shoes.

Pulling together as a group toward one goal may not be natural for engineers. Collaboration may not automatically breed communication.

Engineers may also have trouble respecting managers. A plant manager who used to be an engineer may be perceived as someone who couldn’t make it as an engineer. A plant manager who never was an engineer — well, what can they build? It’s not that engineers are arrogant, but they are used to according people respect on the basis of what they produce. Managers don’t produce much. This can make them invisible to the engineers, and that makes their job difficult.

Just try to manage someone who listens politely while looking at your shoes and then goes on to do it the right way (that is, his or her way, and if you have eight engineers that’s eight different ways).

Managing engineers requires the same skills as managing artists. You may not automatically think of engineers as creative people, but problem solving and coming up with ideas and solutions are creative activities.

  • Provide a high level of freedom, including freedom to fail and try again. Consequences for failure can be the enemy of innovation.
  • Make sure they know they’re valued, and let their value be tied to their production.
  • Give sufficient space and time. Chances are, your engineers need some time alone to think and focus before they can be expected to get together and work on a project.

Gain comfort with managing engineers now and you’ll be ready if the future of your facility turns out to be all about engineers.