Reflecting on Speed, and Time to Prosper

filtration technology

Welcome to 2018.

What do “Star Wars — The Force Awakens,” the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Royals and this blog all have in common?  As you might have guessed, they all had special events in 2015.  Yes, my blog has been up and running now for over three years! Plus, 2015 is when Star Wars debuted and both New England and Kansas City won their respective championships.

Before thinking about 2018, and this blog’s fourth year, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the year 2017.  What intrigues me is what we know now that we did not know in January 2017, one year ago. There were many surprises ranging from politics, world events, social issues, to business and career, sports, food and entertainment.  In the comments below, let’s start a conversation about what you learned in 2017.

Reflecting on 2017 and 2018 Success

Of course, I have many ideas about what I learned last year. Yet, in boiling it down to one theme, I would focus on “speed.”  In all of our endeavors, the speed of information flow, decision making, world events, politics, etc., is increasing dramatically.  From a business point of view, technology, marketplace, competition, manufacturing, etc. are all changing at breakneck speed.  At BHS, for example, we addressed a marketplace request to incorporate “clean-in-place” (CIP) systems which led to changes with our rubber belt filter.

At the same time, if speed is what characterized 2017, for 2018 I’ve decided it’s time to slow down and reflect. For one thing, I have improved my yoga practice. In other areas of my day, I’m taking the time needed to review facts and data, analyze decisions, gather inspiration from many sources, and finally proceed with definite actions. Of course, I still need to be ready to change, as things will continue coming at “breakneck speed,” but I am optimistic about success.

For 2018, I’ve already started thinking with excitement about what posts my readers want to read.  There will be more blogs about “problem-solving” with topics on filtration, particle technologies, drying, and solids handling.  Yet I always invite you to make suggestions! In fact, I’d welcome guest blogger contributions to improve the chemical process industry.  Finally, read often, thick critically, and let’s all prosper in 2018.

The Technique of Technical Writing

technical writing tips
Image source: Foter.com

I challenge you to think of a job in which communication skills won’t increase your chances of success. Even zoo keepers working with other species benefit from communicating non-verbally with the lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) in their care.

In our engineering/business careers, technical writing skills are an even more important subset of communication, and highly valuable. If you follow this blog regularly, read the BHS newsletter or visit our website, you know already how much I enjoy writing and communicating ideas to the marketplace.

To me, while we may call ourselves engineers and professionals, we are also technical writers. All of us craft e-mails, white papers, reports, proposals, justifications, etc. Thinking about this made me want to share some of my thoughts on clarity of communication (with an appreciative ‘I’m not worthy’ nod to all the editors, some of whom I count as friends, of engineering magazines who have studied technical writing / journalism much more closely than I have).

Consider Your Audience

What language are you using? I do not mean to ask whether you’re utilizing a foreign language. Rather, are you employing the language of your audience? For example, many words are relative and they reflect the experience of the writer. Consider for instance the word “large.” What is a large motor, large pipe diameter, or large filter area? The answer depends upon the marketplace, application, place in the world, company, etc. A large motor for a pharmaceutical engineer is much different than for the engineer working in a refinery.   A large filter area is different in the mining industry compared to a specialty chemical. Or what about the word “high”? Think about all of the ways this one word is used…high cost, high efficiency, high pressure, high temperature….I could go on and on.

Going further, when we look at language, we should also look at our own company’s languages. Every vendor, every client, and every software device has its own acronyms and code words. It is like the United Nations without the use of the headphone translations.

Ultimately, clear and concise writing can prevent a safety accident, make a project proceed better, reduce the need for calls in the middle of the night to the process engineer (or worse to the vendor) and improve overall satisfaction. Take care with your writing.

Principles for Better Writing

How do we get better at writing? Write often. Read a lot (you’re off to a great start subscribing to this blog!). I also try to focus on the following:

  • Accuracy — Don’t get caught up in impressing people will all that you know about a subject. Instead, pay attention to accurately communicating the essential information.
  • Write to the audience — You draft for you. You revise for your audience. Always look at what you have written with fresh eyes to consider what will make sense to the person reading.
  • Conversational — Technical writing doesn’t need to be bogged down with jargon. Everything is more interesting to read when the reader is engaged in the story you are trying to tell.
  • Clear and concise — Don’t try to impress people with multisyllabic words and quotes from great classical minds. Cut the excess in favor of getting right to the point and staying there for only as long as you need — no longer.
  • Simple — There are many complex concepts we address every day in our professional lives. That’s what keeps it interesting in the office, right? Only you needn’t share all of the nuances with your reader. The job of the writer is to process the information and identify the main point and important takeaways. Do the thinking first and then share your simple observations in your writing rather than rambling on at length about all of the options you might have considered.

These are the techniques that I focus on in my writing. I hope that you’ll see my blog follows these principles.

Have you had any specific experiences or funny experiences where “language “has been confusing? Let me know. I’d love to follow this blog up with one sharing amusing stories from our field.

Get Out There and Learn!

Genchi Genbutsu
Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Foter.com / CC BY

Years ago, when I was an MBA candidate at the University of Illinois, we were introduced to the MBWA (Management By Walking Around) principle. In Japan, the principle is known as “Genchi Genbutsu.” Toyota, in particular, is known for this “actual place, actual thing” philosophy. Ultimately, in all aspects of engineering — from operational efficiency to process development to system dynamics — this “go and see for yourself” approach is worthy of discussion. No matter how good the information may seem to be, firsthand knowledge is fundamental.

My experience is as a technology supplier, but this action-oriented principle equally applies to the production and processes of our clients. For example, we have a pharmaceutical client that moved from batch processing to continuous processing with BHS technology. The process engineer may be satisfied that the client’s goals and objectives were achieved. However, we insist the next step is to “go see ourselves” and observe the operation. What are the machine efficiencies? Is the design easy to operate and maintain? What is the operator mindset?

In another case, involving a commercial scale-up of a new chemical process, we must know the catalyst; how the scale-up is planned…step-by-step or full in; sequential or parallel technologies…vacuum or pressure; options and costs; and finally value-engineering. The best way for BHS to meet the scale-up needs is to follow the approach of “seeing for ourselves.”

Always be Learning

In looking to always be learning how to best serve customer needs, we also incorporate Jay Forrester’s system dynamics. This technique of feedback and impacts considers questions such as: How does the competition react? What are the consequences — intended or unintended?

Although system dynamics had its beginnings in the physical realm, this method of thinking has moved to areas such as leadership, operational structure, interactions of variables and making decisions for how things are changing for the future. This is easily applied to chemical engineering where “gifted all-arounders” are preferred in a world of increasing complexity.

This idea of exploring a system fully, aiming to truly understand the actual thing functioning in the actual place can greatly impact learning. It poses interesting questions too: How would a car company make pills? How would a chemical company make water bottles? How does a CEO of an airplane company succeed in begin a CEO of a car company? And so on.

Learning in one field can become applicable to others. This blog invites readers and followers to share experiences and improve engineering and innovation processes. Let’s keep this conversation going.

Business Building and Anger

Anger in business
https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/2915034033/620ca1b71bf7c7b11801b42d0e18d08a_400x400.jpeg

I wouldn’t recommend anger at work, but sometimes engineers do get angry at a process, problem, or piece of equipment.  On the other side, in technical consultative sales, we try not to get angry at our clients, at least not directly. After all, in the business world, anger is often viewed as an unsavory emotion. The individual has lost self-control — a cardinal sin in business, right?

In an article addressing anger in the business world, Forbes contributor Neil Patel notes anger can:

  • hinder thought process
  • lead to rash, impulsive decisions
  • create rifts between business partners, colleagues and clients.

Yet Patel also suggested anger can have a major upside if used as fuel to build a business.

“Anger is actually useful when harnessed and controlled because it fosters useful behavioral capabilities,” according to an Inc. reporter’s summary of Emotional Intelligence experts Henry Evans and Colm Foster. Anger creates focus and generates confidence, they suggest. In fact, the highest performing people and teams tap into and express the entire spectrum of emotions.

So, how exactly might you channel anger to for positive ends?  Patel offered 10 ideas:

1. Improve Communication

2. Achieve Hyper-Focus

3. Eliminate Fear

4. Boost Your Confidence

5. Take Action

6. Ignite Your Passion

7. Show Perseverance

8. Aid in Negotiation

9. Show Your Humanness

10. Provide Self-Insight

The important thing about anger in business is to harness the emotion in a smart, controlled way. Avoid getting mad at people (focus on an action or event instead) and try not to say things you will later regret.

Ultimately, anger is one of many authentic emotions. Ignoring it, or trying to hide it, can have many negative impacts both on your professional life and personal well-being. As Inc.’s Jeff Haden pointed out, “Anger is authentic — and so are great leaders.”

Be a great leader by learning to channel your emotions — negative and positive both — in a productive way that helps your focus and drives your business success.

“Anger is authentic — and so are great leaders.”

Bringing Quality Control to Burritos

engineering process
Photo credit: jeffreyw via Foter.com / CC BY

The final page of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), Newscripts, covers interesting scientific research. The item “Scientific Search for the Perfect Burrito” quickly caught my eye. After all, I like burritos. But what I read made me want to share the ideas with you:

Scott Cole, a neuroscience Ph.D candidate at University of California San Diego introduced a statistical burrito rating system. Why, you ask? As he suggests online, a “lack of funding to support public burrito knowledge has led millions of people to eating a burrito and subsequently feeling dissatisfied, a tragedy that can be avoided.”

He notes, “even the most experienced burrito eaters have experienced the following disappointments:”

• “I just took a bite entirely of sour cream”
• “This carne asada has the texture of rubber”
• “THE TEMPERATURE OF THE EGGS IN THIS BURRITO IS TOO DAMN HIGH”
• “I am not looking forward to the leftover burrito in my fridge”
• “Where is the meat in this burrito?”
• “I need a fork”

To address the tragedy, Cole and his reviewers have set out to deploy a 10-factor rating system to evaluate the “majestic cylinder.” The considerations, per Cole’s site, are:

1. Volume
2. Tortilla quality
3. Temperature
4. Meat quality
5. Non-meat filling quality
6. Meat: the ratio between meat and non-meat.
7. Uniformity: “bites full of sour cream and cheese with no meat are disappointing.”
8. Salsa quality – and variety!
9. Flavor synergy
10. Wrap integrity

Need to see the data? It’s viewable online at Cole’s website in a Google spreadsheet.

What I love about this is the systematic way Cole has approached the problem. Just as we would do with an engineering problem, he’s talked with many people involved with producing and utilizing the burrito, developed an overarching checklist and a rating system, and created a spreadsheet to analyze the problem and formulate solutions.

While it sounds simple, we all know, it’s not so easy. After all, as Sherlock Holmes reminds us, we need to be open to investigating the basics; according to the great detective “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

Juiced up about Baseball Science

process engineering

Those who have followed my blog already know some about my background. For instance, I am an avid baseball fan. But here’s a new fact…I have been playing baseball since I was 5 years old. In fact, when I was 12, I was coached by the famous musical band, The Tokens, whose biggest hit was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Needless to say, this was not a winning team. Success was always just “a win away, a win away…”

 

The Chemistry of Baseballs

With the playoffs and World Series looming, the controversy once again has arisen about the “juiced baseball.” This season the number of home runs per game has increased to 2.54 from 2.03. Hit Tracker Online provides us with all the stats and information on “how far it really went” for MLB games.

But what is really going on? There are many theories:

  • hotter temperatures due to global warming
  • strike zone changes
  • stronger and younger players
  • pitching changes.

If we focus on the data, which is what we do as chemical engineers, there are some other interesting ideas to consider.

One theory is based upon the drag coefficient (air resistance) of the ball, as discussed by Rob Arthur. His hypothesis is that the drag coefficient has decreased to 0.344 from 0.357. While this does not sound like much, it can add over five feet to the ball’s distance. This would be enough to increase the number of home runs by 10 – 15%.

Another theory by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman suggests an “air-ball revolution” meaning that players are swinging differently. Several MLB players have been in the news for focusing on hitting the ball harder in the air, and elevating it off the ground more.

 

Testing Baseball’s Stuff

Chemical & Engineering News also has weighed in on data from Rawlings, which has been the Major League Baseball (MLB) supplier for many years. Matt Davenport’s 26 June 2017 article Materials: What’s That Stuff? states the ball is the same and references the ball’s Coefficient of Restitution (COR) value, which has always been between 0.514 – 0.578. The COR refers to the ability of an object to bounce back to its original height when dropped from a certain height. The recognized standard for COR testing is an ASTM method F-1887.

Thus, why we’re seeing such a run on home runs remains a mystery and will be debated for a long time. My idea…let’s have a hot dog and a beer and share theories. As Ernie Banks said “It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

Relating The Undoing Project to Unfiltered Thinking

decision making
Photo credit: Simon & His Camera via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

This summer I read The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. Lewis has also written Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Flash Boys — so maybe you’re familiar with his work. His 2016 book, with the subtitle “A Friendship that Changed Our Minds” introduces us to two Israeli psychologists whose work changed everything from medicine to investing and revealed the weirdness of the human mind. This is also the story of two men with different backgrounds collaborating to create new ideas and new theories.

In the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky changed our understanding of human judgment and decision-making. In 2002, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics (Tversky would undoubtedly have won as well, if he hadn’t died of cancer several years earlier).

Kahneman and Tversky created the field of behavioral economics and showed how the human mind makes errors in judgement in uncertain situations. Their work led to the use of algorithms and big data gathering rather than relying on human intuition. Lewis’s book offers many examples of how this work is used today:

  • Index funds in the stock market
  • evidence-based medicine rather than “diagnosis from the gut”
  • sports such as basketball and baseball using algorithms to analyze players and draft choices
  • government decisions on tax policy, trade, etc. in the US, Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Scandinavia and others.

Relating Undoing to Unfiltered

While the applications of Kahneman and Tversky’s thinking are very interesting, especially data analysis, the aspect that impacts my blog readers is that of sample size. According to Lewis, the collaborators concluded that “in the search for scientific truths, [all scientists] were relying far more than they knew on chance…What’s more, because they had so much faith in the power of small samples, they tended to rationalize whatever they found in them.”

This realization, according to many in the field of measurement and statistics, was the duo’s stroke of genius. For example, a study of 40 subjects/topics gave only a 50% chance of accurately reflecting the answer while to have a 90% chance of being correct, the sample would need to be increased to over 130.

In our chemical engineering business, considering an appropriate sample is a critical point whether it’s with filtration testing, reaction chemistry, drying analysis, etc. Thinking about Kahneman and Tversky reminds us we all must remember to keep in mind our biases and get as large as sample as possible.

220px-TheUndoingProjectFrontCover.jpg

Scaffolding for Creativity in Business

Creativity in Business
Photo credit: 96dpi via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

We’ve all seen scaffolding set up to support work in the construction, maintenance, cleaning and repair of buildings, bridges, houses, and more. While these structures are rarely permanent — and are hoped to be in use only a short period of time — they must be reliable and up-to-date.

Now, you may ask, why blog about scaffolds?

The key point is that a scaffold is a critical support feature. Truly, everyone needs a scaffold for support in a job, business, and company and in their personal lives. I don’t claim to be a relationship guru, so let’s only focus on your job, business and company.

Scaffolding creativity

I maintain that the most important scaffold is creative people doing creative things. This can mean your clients as well as the technology supplier. For example, creative clients have brought to BHS applications for biochemicals (using straw, wheat, bagasse, wood and plastics), fats, lipids and proteins (using chicken renderings and process water used to clean equipment in dairy operations), amino acids, inorganic chemicals and salts, final and bulk pharmaceuticals and oil & gas and refinery operations, including offshore.

At the same time, BHS has provided unique and creative process solutions in all of these cases. One fun case saw us using dimethyl ether, under continuous pressure so it operates as a liquid, with zero fugitive emissions.

Creating permanence for creative mindset

Yet, while scaffolds are transient structures, in business we must consider the question of “how do we ensure the creative people maintain their creativity?” In a recent AICHE article Paul Baybutt stated, “while most people are born with the capacity for creative thinking, this skill can be lost through formal education and societal pressures that discourage it.”

Nevertheless, he noted, “luckily, creative thinking can be learned.” He described several characteristics of a creative thinker such as:

  • thinks imaginatively and with an open mind to new ideas
  • views issues as challenges
  • believes alternatives exist
  • able to live with ambiguity and tolerate a degree of chaos
  • self-confident and knows how to ask good questions.
461657765_21dcd3c57e_m
Photo credit: soham_pablo via Foter.com / CC BY

What can leaders and businesses do to keep the creative juices flowing? Baybutt provided some insights:

  • Be patient and curious
  • Persevere and maintain a positive frame of mind
  • Welcome challenges and embrace mistakes as learning experiences
  • Explore rather than prove
  • Follow your gut
  • Have a desire to “consider” rather than “argue.”

The idea behind scaffolding is to connect workers with their project in a safe, supported way. Creativity too will thrive in this environment — if we find ways to scaffold our creative thinkers to innovation success.

Lessons Learned from Nathan’s

“You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy.”

Innovation Engineering
Photo credit: drpavloff via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Growing up in Brooklyn, I could bicycle about 5 miles to the ocean and Coney Island. I would always stop at Nathan’s Famous. The stop was always for a hot dog, some fries, a Coke, and then a day on the beach. For those who do not know, Nathan’s has sold more than 500 million (all-beef) hot dogs since its inception; it’s brand of hotdogs are now available at more than 53,000 outlets in all 50 states and 10 foreign countries.

I may not be one of the celebrity loyalists — those included performers such as Cary Grant, Barbara Streisand, gangsters Al Capone, Scarface, Bugsy Siegel, and politicians Bernie Sanders, President Donald Trump… But how does this memory relate to this blog?

Lessons Learned from Nathan’s

Nathan Handwerker, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant arrived at Ellis Island speaking not a word of English, unable to read or write, and with twenty-five dollars hidden in his shoes. He had a simple goal: work hard, remain fiercely loyal to what matters most, customers and employees, and stay focused on what you know best. Nathan’s began in 1916 and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Coney Island location is now home, of course, to the 4th of July hot-dog eating contest.

Whether or not you’re dealing with hotdogs, though, we can all learn from Nathan’s. First, stay loyal. This cuts across all aspects of work and family. BHS is over 400 years old, so we have been around a long time. But staying loyal to your business, process, technology or whatever you are engaged with is critical to success.

Nathan’s always focused on “quality food at a fair price” to “bring the customers back.” Nathan personally checked every hot dog that came into the restaurant as well as oil temperature for the fries and grill temperature. As a technology supplier, quality at a fair price is what we do. On the operations side, providing quality chemicals, pharmaceuticals, etc., is the key to survival.

Initially Nathan’s sold hot dogs for 10 cents, the same price as the popular Coney Island outpost Feltman’s beer garden. Then, the enterprising young entrepreneur, after netting a mere $60 in his first days of business, decided to lower his prices to 5 cents. With higher volume his next week’s receipts totaled $260. This was the first fast-food price war and one of the brand’s first innovations.

Nathan’s also introduced the food industry, to purifying the cooking oil, refrigeration and cleanliness as well as “chow mein on a bun” and beer after prohibition.

Loyalty, quality, innovation…seems that I learned a lot from those “old” Brooklyn days. Let me know how your younger days influenced your career. I’m sure we will hear some interesting stories.

Transparency and the Chemical Process Industry

Chemical Processing
Photo credit: GraceOda via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Transparency is good in government, public service, politics, your personal life, and — of course — in business. Think of buyers and sellers…EBay, Airbnb and Uber. We all want more transparency — especially in the current turbulent times. Transparency helps in information gathering, coordination, accountability and decision-making.

But what about in the Chemical Process Industry (CPI)? On one hand, transparency is important for safety and process development. Especially important is transparency in the case of experimental errors or in process equipment.

Mistakes happen

In all of our careers, there has been a time when a mistake happens, maybe a small one and hopefully not a big one. But, if it happens, maximum transparency is critical.

  • First, identify the mistake: Did the process fail? Was the sizing of the machine wrong? Was the application incorrect?
  • Next, apologize and propose a solution.
  • Finally, take action to solve the problem.

Transparency in CPI

Looking at transparency from another angle, sometimes more is better. In an article by McKinsey & Company focused on the “dark side of transparency” and its unintended consequences. The authors outline how excessive sharing of information creates information overload, endless debate and even possibly reduced creativity as ideas are squashed before they can be fully explored.

In the CPI, there are times when more is better and also when less is better. For example, in the relationship between the equipment supplier and the process development engineer, more transparency is better. The more the supplier knows about the process, the better the process solution. This can also reduce chances of the wrong application or wrong sizing, as discussed earlier, and avoidance of the need for an apology after a mistake.

On the other hand, less transparency may be necessary when it involves corporate strategies and competitive advantage. For process equipment, a new development or improved design leading to a unique process solution benefits the client and the technology supplier, but not the competition. The same is true of information shared by the client with the technology supplier. We sign many NDA’s today to protect the client’s strategies for new processes, new compounds, new markets, and new approaches.

What do you think, more or less? Every day we face these questions. Find me on LinkedIn and let me know your ideas and the skills that you have developed to get the transparency balance correct. Keep in mind, though, your comments will be transparent and may be shared with my readers.