Avoid the worst control system ever

Automation System Integration Blog: Nobody wants to get a screaming phone call about “the worst control system ever.” Improve your control system in three easy steps.


This is the WORST control system I have ever worked with! It shut down AGAIN last night! My operators are frustrated, I’m mad, and our production supervisor is NOT IMPRESSED!

Ever get that call? If you learn from Control Engineering regularly, then you probably have lots of clients in your organization or in other organizations. If you have lots of clients, you will inevitably get this call. I’ll even go so far as to say that it’s probably not your fault. In fact, it’s probably not even your control system. But it doesn’t matter. You have to figure out the right response, right now, on the spot. No time to think, and you don’t want to don’t make the caller angrier. What do you do?

I want to share with you a response that my friend (thanks, Ben) shared with me. When you get that call, take a deep breath and do the following:

1. Act surprised: Surprise indicates that this situation isn’t normal for you and protects your credibility. It’s not specifically what you say next, after hello, but more that your tone contains some surprise. As a note, do not say, “I’ve never seen this before.” Convey the surprise with your voice without being over the top. Here are some possible words to use.

Example response: “[Mr. or Ms. Customer Name here], that really sounds like an issue! I’m taken aback at how this went. Can you tell me more?”

2. Show concern: The customer will clearly want to know that you care. The customer will want to know that you actually relate to the situation and are “on the team” to try to make it better. This is also the stage where you, while showing concern, try to gather some data.

Example response (stated with concern): “This really sounds like a big problem and is clearly important. Help me understand better what is happening, specifically.”

For bonus points, specifically ask for permission to ask some questions and for details about the situation. Asking permission helps you understand the customer position well.

Example response: “That definitely sounds like an issue. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about the situation so that I can get a better picture of what has happened and is happening now?”

Customer (all caps: you know what that means): QUESTIONS! YOU SHOULD KNOW THE ANSWER TO THIS! (Now you understand that the customer thinks it’s 100% your fault.)

Customer: OK... (often a pause, and deep breath here), let me fill you in first, and please ask questions along the way. (Now you are having a decent conversation, can gain more information, and can contribute knowledge.)

By asking permission to get to the questions, you can also ask more difficult ones without being offensive.

Example response: “OK, so for clarity,  do you believe the issues are 100% in the control system, or is it an interface related to multiple things? I absolutely want to help. I just want to understand more about the situation.”

Only because you asked for permission and came in gently do you get away with asking a tough question like that one (“Do you think it’s the control system or not?”) without having the situation explode.

3. Gather data/escalate: Get as much information as you can. DO NOT COMMIT TO ANYTHING. You are just collecting information about what happened, what has changed, when the issue started, what will happen if it is not resolved by when, etc. Then escalate.

Example response: “When did this happen… [etc.]. OK, sounds good. Thanks for giving me the info. I need to take this immediately to my [team/boss/mom/CEO/anyone who is not on the phone at that moment].” Then get off the phone. You need to absorb the information from notes, the conversation, and the tone, and think. Then you need to talk it over with the team and devise a plan. You need also to ensure you did not commit to anything silly or agree that it was your fault.

If you can remember these three bits of advice, in order (1. Act surprised, 2. Show concern, 3. Gather data/escalate), you can de-escalate some very tough situations. The margin for error in control system development is small, and a lot of money tends to be on the line. Thus, the angry call is part of our world. Take a deep breath, remember the three bits of advice, get off the phone, and you will figure it out.

- The Automation System Integration Blog aggregates expert advice from Callisto Integration, providing manufacturing consulting and systems integration. This blog provides integration advice in plant-floor controls, manufacturing execution systems (MES), and manufacturing consulting, from the factory floor through to the enterprise. Andrew Barker, P.Eng., Callisto Integration, compiled the advice. www.callistointegration.com

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