Confessions of a Food Engineer

How the engineering function at food plants has changed: 'I don’t manage projects anymore; I manage the process of managing projects.'

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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I also spend a lot of time training people to do this. Not many of them are engineers. A lot of people in other departments with master's degrees are picking up work that engineers used to do. These are smart and energetic people, eager to learn. They are hard working and capable.

Training makes up a lot of what I do today. I coach guys on how to write a proposal. I help them write a CER (capital expense request), explain the strategy, help them select the words appropriate to the request. Today, the role is more one of oversight and coach to the younger folks - women and men who may not be engineers.

One fellow has been with me for several years. In the last two years he has handled $1.5 million in project work and managed a dozen projects. He has had CAD (computer-aided design) training and now project management experience. He knows how to schedule projects, and he assigns tasks. But he's not an engineer. He knows how to find other people to fill in the gaps in his training and ability.

Our organization challenges young people. One young woman in our organization is very bright. She listens and learns. She has no engineering training and has never bent any metal, but she has good skills and a good brain. But, without a mentor, she would not be able to do the job.

In the mid-1990s, as engineering downsizing was becoming the trend, the most conspicuous void in the industry was the absence of mentors. "Who is going to teach the young engineers?" we wondered. "Who is going to show them the ropes?" With so few engineers now, we have to mentor! We have no choice but to teach. Necessity is a marvelous persuader.

My value to the organization is my experience. A lot of guys like myself have been forced out of the food industry. That's a lot of experience walking out the door. Who's going to coach and train these people after me?

You see, I don't manage projects anymore. I manage the process of managing projects. Out of six people working on projects for our company, only one is an engineer. One has computer design training. The other four are bright and technically minded, but they don't know what questions to ask.Yet.

From metal bender to line design to project management to managing project management…to teacher. That pretty much sums up how the job has changed.

Marketing projects

Selling a project within your company is critical today. Money is tight; capital is restricted. So we've learned to get more creative on projects. We can get projects done with less capital than in the past.

I know how to market a project, how to sell the organization on the appropriation. My value is in translating strategy, taking ideas and putting them down in ways that make sense. You have to make "business" come out of a project.

A project proposal should say "this is a good business investment because…" This is tough for those who haven't been down this road before. You have to understand that the people who give us money don't care about the project. They care about the business!

You are competing for capital within your organization. The better projects wind up on top of the pile. But what characterizes the better projects? They are better because you have made a better case or provided the better economic justification.

It's all about sales!

In four years, I have never had a capital appropriation turned down. My success is a combination of engineering training, experience and judgment. We study, we plan, we take our shot.

But that's not how everyone does it. For some, the pattern is "Ready, shoot, aim."

A couple of years ago, an engineer left the company in the middle of a multi-million dollar project. I took over.

I couldn't transfer the job to someone else because I had no one there to give it to. I had the experience and could interpret what needed to be done. I had to put on my shoulder pads and leather helmet.

I worked seven days a week for eight weeks.

To the organization, that is my value. I was the only registered engineer.

The downside of third-party engineering

For years, we were hiring outside engineers to do our project work. We hired or "partnered" with engineering firms. We teamed with the equipment makers. Sometimes we hired a specialty shop to build a piece of equipment.

But someone at the company needs to understand the technology, needs to know the plants and the lines. Companies using vendors or hiring professional engineers to run their projects. I just don't see the value in that.

When you hire an outside engineering firm to manage a project, you are not developing your own people. You don't learn anything from it.

That our company is taking projects back inside is a good sign. Now there's more focus on protecting our core competency, keeping our expertise in-house. The generic stuff goes to the outside engineering firms.

We are doing everything we possibly can now to keep our knowledge base in-house.

Engineering made an easy target when the downsizing began because few people understand what you do. Even when manufacturing and quality problems begin to mushroom, management isn't screaming, "Boy, we better hire back a bunch of engineers!"

If you look at the companies that have maintained a relatively strong engineering organization, you'll find that they did it by communicating with upper management, by letting them know what they are doing and what value they have brought to the company.

By and large, engineers don't toot their own horns a lot. Many disappeared behind their pocket protectors in the past. Slowly, quietly, we did ourselves in. You have to communicate.

Surrogate engineers

We are becoming more independent again. We are doing more and more things in-house. We are teaching people how to track costs, control projects. This kind of training is taking place all over the company. We are also getting a lot of help with our SAP system.

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