Career Development / Leadership Skills / Workforce Development

CMRP Rising Leader of the Year: Robert Bishop

One secret to helping your team run more efficiently and effectively? Recognize what you can learn from others.

Robert Bishop, CMRP, CRL, is plant manager at Toronto-based Chemtrade’s Syracuse, NY, sodium nitrite manufacturing plant. Last fall, the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) named him one of the society’s two CMRP of the Year recipients; he was recognized in the Rising Leader category. Previously the manager of maintenance and reliability at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Bishop, who also chairs SMRP’s Pharma and Biotech Shared Interest Group, spoke with Plant Services about the compliance challenges in the pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries as well as the importance of strengthening interdepartment communication and collaboration.

PS: You have a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Rochester and a master’s in bioengineering from Syracuse University – how did that background help lead you to a role as a maintenance and reliability manager at a pharmaceutical company like Bristol-Myers Squibb?

RB: I’ve always been an equipment-type person. I always feel comfortable around equipment. Like, this weekend I’ll be changing the brakes on my car. I decided to go for my undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester – I put myself in a little bit of an uncomfortable place because UR is more of a theory than an application type of school. I knew that going in, and I enjoyed the challenge of that. When I got out of school, with a mechanical engineering degree, you can pretty much do anything, which is kind of a challenge. I ended up working for a company in Rochester. That gave me exposure to the pharmaceutical industry, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to work in the pharmaceutical industry, and so I ended up going to work for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

I was still involved in the equipment side but on more of the compliance end, so computer validation, equipment qualification, cleaning validation (to ensure removal of residues from the pharmaceutical production process) and that kind of thing.

Back in ’06, Wyeth decided they were either going to close or sell the site that I worked at, so that prompted me to look proactively and not wait for that to happen. I ended up in Syracuse, New York (and at Bristol-Myers Squibb). So I was still dealing with equipment qualification, cleaning validation, that side of things – a lot of the compliance aspect – but I’ve always worked in more of a facilities and engineering group.

PS: How did working in the highly regulated pharmaceutical sector, with its strict compliance reporting requirements, affect your thinking about and approach to reliability?

RB: Within the pharmaceutical world, and I think if you carry it to food and beverages, too, a lot of the challenges have to do with making sure that you have the right certification in place. Having to deal with the documentation creates a mentality where your thought processes are more through, your documentation is more thorough, and so as you go through any kind of project, you tend to think it out a little bit more. When you do investigations, for example, if you have an equipment failure or something, those investigations tend to be more of a true root-cause (type of investigation). I would say that it’s still a step below a nuclear (facility) or industries like airlines, places where failure is not acceptable at all. Having a piece of equipment fail in a food or pharmaceutical type of environment doesn’t usually result in an injury to people. It’s usually an injury to your bottom line. Having that documentation (requirement), although it is a challenge, I think that it is a very unique benefit to those industries.

PS: You’ve made a move into the food and beverage world and are taking on a new position as plant manager – what challenges and opportunities do you see in your new role?

RB: Bringing, you know, the history that I have and applying some of those thought processes within a different context. Anytime you (shift) from one paradigm to another, making sure that you don’t assume that your experiences or your culture that you’re used to is better. You have to assess the culture where you’re going; you have to make sure that you have a thorough understanding before you start changing things on a whim. You have to make those decisions about where (potential) changes are and possibly admitting to yourself that a change isn’t necessary in some cases.

Some of my experiences in the past have led me to go very in-depth when it comes to some of the documentation. So for example in an equipment failure, historically I might have gone through and done Ishikawa [cause-and-effect] diagrams and 5 Whys and done a formal (investigation) that could end up taking 50 to 100 hours’ worth of people’s time to complete that investigation. That’s costly to do. And in reality a lot of times, a couple hours, two or three hours, without the rigor around it, can still give you that gut feeling and get you very close to the same endpoint. And so I think not necessarily not doing an investigation but more about the level that you take that investigation; I think that’s an example of where I went ahead and changed my expectation to still do the investigation to get to that (end)point but not necessarily through the same rigor.

PS: In addition to your new role at Chemtrade, you’re also leading reliability classes for the professional development program in the University of Wisconsin’s engineering department, right?

RB: I am. We just wrapped up a class about two weeks ago. We did our first online class, which was really interesting for me. It was a night class, an introduction to predictive technologies, with some of the materials prerecorded, some of those online live. Currently I’ve (also) been going out twice a year to teach a class in person.

PS: Do you know the makeup of your classes? Is it more younger people getting into the field or mid-career people looking to expand their skill set?

RB: It’s a mixture. I will say that last year, I was giving the predictive class, the in-person lab, and one of the gentlemen in the class had about 30 years of experience with vibration and he was Level III certified, so sometimes I learn more from the students. It’s a really enjoyable experience to get out and have those conversations. You walk out with quite a bit of increased knowledge.

PS: What are some things that you’ve learned teaching that you’ve applied to your work or vice-versa?

RB: Probably the biggest thing is making sure that you get engagement. I’m an engineer; I think like an engineer. I have always been that way. I tend to (approach things like), “Here’s the facts I want to get across.” But some of that doesn’t necessarily equate to digestion of that information. So recognizing when someone in a meeting or when parts of the class start to drift and bringing them back into the discussion (is key). People skills can be very helpful just in your normal day-to-day meetings and things.

PS: Do you have specific goals now that you’d like to accomplish? What’s next for you?

RB: I’m really looking forward to a lot of things, namely to learning the business side of things better. I’ve always interacted with people within finance or sales or this or that, but to actually own some of that responsibility now and to come in and learn just a new side of the business within a new industry for me, those kinds of things are very appealing.

PS: You’re not at 30 or 40 years of experience in the field yet (ed’s note: Bishop is 41), but what evolution have you seen in terms of validation, equipment qualification, etc.?

RB: A lot of the changes that we’ve seen tie back to efficiency. Making the process easier while at the same time maintaining the robustness level that you need to have from a documentation standpoint. When I first started, (it was) you go through and do all your commissioning, and then the commissioning team would hand off the project to validation, and validation would take over. And one group might do IT work and information stuff, and then somebody else is coming in to do some testing, and then a whole other group will come in to do the performance side of things. Integration of those pieces, leveraging the work that earlier groups have done, documenting stuff correctly so we don’t have to repeat it – efficiency has been the biggest thing. At the end of the day, our goal is to make sure that this equipment does what it’s supposed to do, when it’s supposed to, and that we know what’s there and that we have a management-of-change process around it. That goal doesn’t change over time, but how we accomplish it does.

PS: Do you remember when you took your CMRP exam?

RB: I do. I came over to maintenance and reliability in June of 2012, and my boss pushed me from Day 1 to take the exam. I thought, you know, let me get settled in a while. I got the right books and I started studying, and then around the end of the year, he said, “You know, we need you to sign up for the exam.” And I said, “Well, I think I’m almost ready.” And then when we got to the middle of the first quarter, he said, “We’re going to pick a date right now. Let’s go and do it together.” And that was awesome because I would have delayed it further. So I ended up taking it that spring of 2013. I’ve since become a proctor for the exam.

PS: What has CMRP certification meant to you?

RB: My biggest goal over the last, you know, five or six years has been to really change culture. We can write all the procedures run every day, implement as many job plans and PMs as we want, and so on. But it’s the people at the end of the day that mean the most.

And so to me, having the credibility behind the CMRP certification has given me the ability to stand in front of a group and say, “Come along this journey with me. Listen to where I can take us,” whether that’s from managing my own group or sitting in front of a cross-functional group and saying, look, you know, you as operations have a lot to gain from understanding the project engineer’s role and what their inputs and outputs are, and how what you give them influences a project.

It’s about breaking down those silos. You know, you don’t have to understand how to be a project engineer. You have to understand what that project engineer’s main responsibilities are, where they’re getting their information, and how that influences the project they run. People believe me when I start going down that road because of the certification.

Certification is something that I think people need to try for no matter what your discipline is. There are professional certifications out there for all of us. You know, if you happen to be in maintenance and reliability, the CMRP certification is obviously a very appropriate one.

What I will say, too, that the awards that are out there too, for self-improvement programs really help us as maintenance and reliability professionals to get the attention of our organizations, right. It’s very easy for our organization to lose focus on maintenance and reliability, to not give us the support and the attention that really is due because they don’t understand how it impacts down the line. And so things like the CMRP of the Year Award really allow us to get the audience and the attention with our organizations to help push that one further step that we wouldn’t have without it.