Engineering and purchasing can work together

April 19, 2012
Tom Moriarty says trust and collaboration trump finger-pointing.

Finger-pointing doesn’t get much done. People think that by pointing fingers at others they perceive to be guilty of some act of omission (not doing what they were supposed to do) or commission (doing something they weren’t supposed to do), that they’ve deflected responsibility successfully.

“It’s not my fault that the pump failed after 200 running hours; we had to hurry up and get it back on line.”

“Purchasing bought these ridiculous valves that don’t hold up to the pressures in this system.”

“We couldn’t complete the PMs on Line 2 because the operators broke Line 4.”

In the short term, there’s a sort of reward for finger-pointing in that those pointing their digits at others seem to be trying keep themselves out of the “hot seat.”

Finger-pointing increases in direct proportion to the amount of distrust and lack of teamwork in an organization. Trust and teamwork are affected by internal and external drivers. A bad economy, for instance, is an external driver that forces management to make budget cuts, often meaning headcount. Often internal drivers are found in dysfunctional organizations where operations, sales, and marketing, or some other department takes a preeminent role to “drive the bus” without sufficient regard for necessary supporting functions. If you take an objective look at an organization, the accountability for low trust and low teamwork falls to senior management and department management.


An example of a truly well-run organization is a manufacturing firm I visited last year. Upon entering the plant, it was immediately obvious that there was a high degree of trust and teamwork. People were smiling, production schedules were posted with good and bad performance indications. Most importantly, there were collaborative efforts in place to resolve problems that arose.

Between operations and maintenance, I saw operations people taking responsibility for an accumulation of waste that caused an upset. No one was going to be given time off or fired, so people didn’t view assuming responsibility for upsets as a bad thing. Just the opposite — they wanted to make things better. They were most concerned about identifying the root cause and putting in place practices that would reduce the likelihood of future upsets.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at [email protected].
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I met with the president of the company who shared a story that involved purchasing and engineering. One of the company’s systems required a 20-hp motor. The engineering department provided specifications to the purchasing department for its preferred motor and the vendor’s contact information. Purchasing got quotes from the vendor but also identified a different supplier from a rather large Asian country. Purchasing obtained motor specifications and load curves for the alternative motor. Before buying the cheaper motors, the buyer discussed the matter with engineering. The engineers were open to alternatives if the specs were similar or better — a demonstration of trust and teamwork. Engineering agreed to test several samples of the alternative motors but was unable to replicate the published design curves the manufacturer provided.

You might think this scenario sounds as though it happened as it was supposed to happen. But how many times have you heard stories of the purchasing department buying a less-expensive bearing or valve or drive belt, only to saddle the maintenance department with shortened mean time between failures? Who’s to blame? Who would you point your finger at?

The moral of the story about the 20-hp motor isn’t simply that two departments worked it out. What I’d like you to take away from the story is that the senior leadership team and functional leaders set the tone of trust and teamwork.

Remember the old adage that when you point one finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. I’d add that there’s also a thumb that points upward. The “three fingers pointing at you” means that there’s a three to one advantage in clearly communicating the what, where, and why of the outcome you need. One thumb pointing up means that it’s the senior leadership team and department managers who are ultimately accountable for the trust and teamwork in the plant.

When fingers are pointed, it reflects on both individuals and on the leadership team. Individuals need to work together to solve problems and the leadership team needs to foster an environment in which trust and teamwork trump blame and deflection of responsibility.