Tag Archives: Machinists

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists

Originally Posted on June 8, 2012.  Added comments from the past 2 years:

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief.  He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds.  The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes.  Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.

The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979 as a summer help.  One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment.  I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new.  Then there is  this very large lathe.  It was monstrous.  I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient and they are perfectionists.  During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  This was called:  “Check Out”.

Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.  Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly.  He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.  This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war with the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was).  Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.

He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement.

At that point I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent the plexiglass all the way around to where both ends were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”

I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman during my first summer at the plant and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.

Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

I have saved the Chief until last.  Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe.  They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.

It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope John Paul II had just been shot.  He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic.  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built.  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.

Ray retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.  I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas for the company truck and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

This is where the Pow-wow is held today. The same field where Ken Conrad danced with the Bobcat years ago

Comment from the original Post:

  jackcurtis June 23, 2012

The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!

 

Comments from first Repost:

  1. Ron Kilman June 12, 2013:

    Good story, Kevin!

    I worked in 5 power plants in Oklahoma and I was constantly amazed by what the Machinists could do.

  2. Monty Hansen August 15, 2013:

    Great Story, I remember the machinist from the plant where I started was EXACTLY as you describe, his name was Don Rogers and he was both, one of the most talented and kindest men I’ve ever met in my power plant career. I don’t remember every name from back then, but if you met Don, he left a great impression that was impossible to forget.

 

Comment from last year’s repost:

  1. Dan Antion June 10, 2014

    I worked in a machine shop while in high school and we had an excellent machinist there. The shop made gun barrels and they had actually made some of the equipment themselves. Those men were artists and engineers.

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.  After all, he never really took a course in motivational speaking.

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 to 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.

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists

Originally Posted on June 8, 2012.  Added comments from the past 2 years:

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief.  He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds.  The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes.  Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.

The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979 as a summer help.  One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment.  I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new.  Then there is  this very large lathe.  It was monstrous.  I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient  and they are perfectionists.  During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  This was called:  “Check Out”.

Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.  Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly.  He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.  This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war with the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was).  Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.

He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement.

At that point I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent the plexiglass all the way around to where both ends were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”

I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman during my first summer at the plant and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.

Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

I have saved the Chief until last.  Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe.  They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.

It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope John Paul II had just been shot.  He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic.  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built.  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.

Ray retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.  I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas for the company truck and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

This is where the Pow-wow is held today. The same field where Ken Conrad danced with the Bobcat years ago

Comment from the original Post:

  jackcurtis June 23, 2012

The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!

 

Comments from first Repost:

  1. Ron Kilman June 12, 2013:

    Good story, Kevin!

    I worked in 5 power plants in Oklahoma and I was constantly amazed by what the Machinists could do.

  2. Monty Hansen August 15, 2013:

    Great Story, I remember the machinist from the plant where I started was EXACTLY as you describe, his name was Don Rogers and he was both, one of the most talented and kindest men I’ve ever met in my power plant career. I don’t remember every name from back then, but if you met Don, he left a great impression that was impossible to forget.

 

Comment from last year’s repost:

  1. Dan Antion June 10, 2014

    I worked in a machine shop while in high school and we had an excellent machinist there. The shop made gun barrels and they had actually made some of the equipment themselves. Those men were artists and engineers.

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 to 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.

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.