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Our Insights

Keeping It Simple

November 13, 2019

By Alyshia Guerrero
Environmental Specialist, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

I’m still amazed at where the path of environmental engineering has led me. For starters, this was never the official “plan.” In my family, it’s tradition to either work on cars or in aircraft production. To begin my career, I chose the latter.

Graduating with an Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering degree, the aircraft field was a perfect fit for me. The primary focus of everything I learned at Wichita State University was: Simplify a system and improve efficiency while maximizing production.

With that training in mind, along with my love for computers, I began designing parts for prop planes and working with SAP technology, part forecasting/Just-In-Time inventory systems, and part manufacturing compliance. I even got to fly a prop plane a few times!

Years later, I accepted a computer programmer position at a large chemical company.  My passion for computers had only grown and I was excited to try something new. However, a year into working on IT projects with clients from all over the world, my boss approached me with a proposition. He asked if I would be interested in joining a newly-developed environmental program at one of the company’s chemical plants in Texas. Talk about a change of plans!

Throwing my career path to the wind, I agreed and moved from Kansas to Texas. As you can imagine, this move taught me many lessons.

Like the time I was called to investigate a “bird find” (any bird suspected to be affected by a chemical release) only to discover raccoons beat me to the punch. Or the time I faced my terrible fear of heights climbing a 250-foot industrial boiler stack for stack testing, and scaling four stories of see-through metal grating to inspect continuous emission monitoring system readings.

But overall, the lesson I took away happens to be one of my college professor’s favorite phrases: “Keep it simple, stupid,” or KISS.

The lesson began when my new boss asked me to fix a couple hundred Excel-based logs that the operators used to document environmental compliance activities. The task seemed easy, but once I examined the logs, it quickly became apparent that the system was a mess.

Nerves of steel. To measure regulated pollutants and establish compliance with the Clean Air Act, stack testing requires the tester to climb stack heights ranging from 150 feet to 600 feet.

Many logs had broken links with no apparent data origination. Some were completely wiped from the system with only hard copies available. The digital signature system had many errors and was often unusable, and there were duplicate data entries spanning across multiple logs.

The system’s flaws, in short, were overwhelming. But as I worked to come up with a solution, I imagined my professor telling me in his humorous, light-hearted voice, “Don’t you remember? Keep it simple, stupid! With that in mind, I had a plan.

I interviewed operators and learned that they printed the logs before inspections, then manually entered the data into a control room computer or gave the printed logs to their shift supervisor.  The high volumes of logs also conflicted with their normal job duties, and the “environmental lingo” made it difficult to understand, resulting in many incomplete or inaccurate logs.

I then interviewed the environmental compliance engineers processing the logs. Like the operators, many told me the logs were time-consuming and stressful. Due to an inconsistent storage method (online vs hard-copy), the engineers were constantly hunting down the location of the completed forms, a job function almost within itself. Entering the data into an internal compliance tracking system involved sifting through hundreds of logs—a process that frequently caused non-compliance with local and federal recordkeeping and inspection requirements.

My main objective was to reduce the excessive number of logs by merging them into simplified versions with clear requirements that everyone could understand.
With frequent turnover at the site, I also enlisted help from the Corporate IT department to avoid further degradation of the logs.

Feeling confident in my assessment, I presented the issues and solutions to my boss. To my surprise, he opted to stick to the original plan of fixing formula errors for almost 200 operator logs. I felt defeated. Apparently, my KISS method had failed me. Slapping Band-Aids on my metaphorical wounds, I came up with another idea. To help my boss see how important this was for the whole team, I needed reinforcements. With his approval, I had another chance to make my case.

Individually I met with several experienced operators, shift supervisors and engineers to join my cause. I knew my boss would respect their opinion if they also approved the need for major reform. They happily agreed.

Next thing I knew, we were all crammed into a tiny trailer conference room and once again I was presenting my case. It was difficult at first, but after a lengthy discussion, we successfully negotiated the “terms and conditions” and I was granted permission to implement the changes.

To this day, every time I’m in a bind, I look to my past work experiences and advice given to me from some of my favorite experienced colleagues. While not the most thrilling story, fixing the operator logs taught me the value of understanding and utilizing your resources. When building a sustainable system, simplicity should almost always be sought over complexity. So, next time you encounter a vexatious problem… don’t forget to KISS.

About the Author:

Ready to fly. Environmental specialist Alyshia Guerrero and her coworker pose with their flight instructor (far right) in front of a Beechcraft Bonanza model prop plane.

Alyshia specializes in air quality permitting and compliance, waste and water compliance and data management in the chemical intermediates and pipeline systems industries. She also has a diverse background in data management systems, lean manufacturing and supply chain management in the aircraft manufacturing industry. Got a question for Alyshia? Send her an email at alyshia.guerrero@powereng.