I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.
I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.
After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.
I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed on in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.
One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.
Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.
During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.
I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.
Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.
You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.
I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.
When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.
I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.
A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.
After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. I was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:
Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.
Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.
The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….
Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not bee for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.
Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.
They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.
They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.
This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.
I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.
If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.
Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:
Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.
Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.
Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”
Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.
Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.
Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.
Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.
Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.
Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.
Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.
Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.
Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.
Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.
Jerry Dalel taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.
Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.
I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.