Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Traveling Engineer

An "expert" is someone from out of town carrying a clipboard. That's an expression I've used from time to time, but didn't always appreciate. I've always known that if you carried a clipboard or stack of papers and dressed appropriatly it was possible to pass as someone "official" and fool most people into thinking you're someone you're not. In fact I have been mistaken for teaching assistants or even professors when I didn't intend to give that impression.

What I've just begun to appreciate, though, is how willing many people are to follow the direction of someone they've never met before.

Last week I traveled to a manufacturing facility where I've never been before. I've never met anyone there (though I've talked with a few on the phone) so they really had no idea what to expect. So I walked in, boss by my side, and started meeting people. I disappeared for half a day studying product samples and working with my boss. Afterwards we presented our findings to the plant staff.

Here's where it gets interesting. My boss gave me the go-ahead to change the equipment and then went back to studying samples, barely checking in on me. So I went out to the shop and the factory floor and started directing changes. Nobody questioned me. Not the workers on the floor, not the managers and technicians, not the guys in the shop who had 30 more years experience. They all wanted to learn from what I was doing and followed my lead without question.

My boss hardly interfered, even though he still wasn't positive that my analysis of the situation was completely correct. That changed later on when results started coming back. He approached me and (while giving me a good natured punch in the ribs) said he thought I had been right in my analysis. (He had gone out on a limb to support me.)

So we finished up our work together and packed up to go. Then the plant staff asked me to come back next week and work on another piece of equipment. Just two weeks before they hadn't "had the time" to do this work, and yet they wanted me to start in on it as soon as I could get back (regardless of whether or not my boss was along)

So it looks like it really is true...carry a clipboard and (with a little confidence) you can be the expert from out of town. Which is a good thing, because I like the folks at the factory and I'm glad they're having me back to work with them again.

Now if you'll pardon me, I have to re-pack my suitcase.


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