Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing.  Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees.  With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.

Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder.  I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing).  I knew we weren’t going to be working harder.  — What does that really mean anyway.  I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”.  Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other.  They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals.  I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.

I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input.  For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team.  That was disbanded immediately.  We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work).  The Safety Task Force did survive.

We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone.  It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out.  This was actually a good idea.  I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections.  Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.

It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.

We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections.  That was not our responsibility.  It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead.  I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”.  The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less.  The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work.  We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do).  Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”.  I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.

We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop.  We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop.  We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional.  We are all Maintenance now.  No longer specialized (sort of).

We were going to have four Maintenance teams.  Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people.  Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.

An electrician will learn how to tack weld.  A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire.  An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe.  We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.

When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet.  Actually, this was just a first pass.  The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done.  I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.

One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster.  We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post:  “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“).  We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work.  We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us.  They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).

As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes.  First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics.  We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.

Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks.  Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies.  The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.

Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message.  I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone.  I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone.  The Phone number by the way is:  (405) 553-29??.  Oh.  I can’t remember the last two digits.  🙂

Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well.  I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great.  The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.

Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared the old conventional way we used to work.  I will start by describing how we used to do things….  Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…

Horizontal pump

Horizontal pump

— start here —

An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.).  It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics.  (start the clock here).  When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem.  Yep.  The pump is not working.  They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.

A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor.  The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it.  They finally assign it to a team to go work on it.  Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O.  The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump.  The next day the electrician unwires the motor.  They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.

The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired.  When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump.  At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.

The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.

A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both.  So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain — Machinist Extraordinaire

The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready.  When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back.  Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.

The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.

During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back.  So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.

The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.

George Clouse

George Clouse – Welding Wizard

They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.

The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up.  After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction.  An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor.  The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor.  Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.

The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service.  The M.O.s are completed.

—  End here.  The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —

Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).

— Start here —

The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard.  A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired.  He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump.  The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.

The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance.  When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor.  While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside.  The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on.  If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump.  It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump.  Any machinist work is done at that time.

When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on.  The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor.  The operators are called to bump test the motor.  As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed.  The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.

— End here.  The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks.  Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —

The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority.  We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work.  This was a fantastic change from working in silos.

This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”.  Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase.  To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”.  Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams.  I have seen them work successfully.  There was only one catch which I will talk about later.  This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet!  So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.

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7 responses

  1. “(which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action)” – I still need to work on this one a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on A Conservative Christian Man.

    Like

  3. Sounds like going to cross-functional teams was a good improvement. While you guys were implementing this and the 53 year olds were ruling, this 47 year old was free as a bird, flying at 5,000 feet over northern Oklahoma earning his Instrument Rating courtesy of OG&E and having a blast!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your blog gives readers an inside look at how much effort actually goes into providing the power we take so for granted. Thank you! Always a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You are for sure also an excellent writer……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the complement Pmetro.

      Like

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