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How Do You Get the Best From the People Working on Your Project?


The following discussion is part of an occasional series, "Ask the Automation Pros," authored by Greg McMillan, industry consultant, author of numerous process control books, and 2010 ISA Life Achievement Award recipient. Program administrators will collect submitted questions and solicits responses from automation professionals. Past Q&A videos are available on the ISA YouTube channel. View the playlist here. You can read all posts from this series here.

Looking for additional career guidance, or to offer support to those new to automation? Sign up for the ISA Mentor Program.

Ed Farmer's Question:

Long ago I watched an Army National Guard sergeant-major building a unit intended for rapid deployment to State emergencies (such as floods, earthquakes, forest fires, etc.). It was impossible to watch his unit going together without feeling very impressed and very proud of what he was doing.


I asked him what he was doing that quickly produced so much success. He said they trained them in the tasks and then pointed them at situations needing what they should be able to do. Then, he said, he watched them like a hawk. He would look for things going well, and jump in to compliment them on their effort and quality.


All of them worked extra-hard to achieve his notice, and especially a compliment. The sergeant-major knew his troops could be taught all the required subjects and develop the required skills but for success, in his words, “They have to want it.” In the process industry, how can we improve the performance of people working on automation system projects?


Mike Laspisa's Responses:

Here are some approaches that have resulted in successful projects:
Treat all team members with respect and show appreciation for their contributions to the project. It takes all roles (engineer, designer, drafter/CAD, …) working together to complete a project on schedule and under budget.


Know the strengths and weaknesses of your team members and try to set them up for success. All engineering/design tasks need to be done on a project. Some are more challenging than others. I once had an engineer tell me that preparing specifications for pressure gauges was beneath him and he only had to use 10% of his brain. Unfortunately, after checking his work, it was obvious that he needed to use a little more of his brain on that task.


Training is difficult to accomplish in today’s business model. It used to be a given but now it is seen as a luxury. Lunch and learns are not efficient training methods. Look for opportunities to bring in Vendors during work hours, authorize outside courses, and utilize ISA seminars and conferences. Be a resource for the team and stress that not knowing an answer to a design issue is not a fault but not working to find the answer is.


Total Quality Initiative (TQI) checklists are sometimes seen as a burden by the I&C Lead Engineer. However, they can be helpful if used during the course of the design phase instead of just filling them out at the end of a project to complete the requirement of using them.



Greg McMillan's Responses:

I would encourage education, communication, innovation, recognition, and plant performance. Having causal conversations and mentoring can open the door to better performance. Being a team player and seeking feedback is essential. Talking to experts within ISA, your company, the supplier, and plant is generally beneficial.


Getting an expert to give a short course would be ideal. I suggest you consider Mike Laspisa since he is interested in sharing his extensive knowledge through courses and Hunter Vegas who has an ISA course on project management. You can send me and email as to the type of course you would need and can I see if Mike, Hunter, or other Mentor Program resources would be a good match.


I suggest focusing on reading ISA Mentor Q&A posts, ISA Standards and Technical Reports, Control Talk columns, and two publications by me and Hunter Vegas. The first is the ISA book 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career and the second is the McGraw-Hill Process/Industrial Instruments and Controls Handbook Sixth Edition. The handbook has best practices at the end of each section that provide the conciseness and focus rarely seen. As an ISA member you have free access to view ISA Standards and Technical Reports online. I particularly recommend checking out the recently issued technical report ISA-TR5.9 on PID Algorithms and Performance.


The emphasis should be on plant performance. This means getting the best instrumentation, configuration, operator interface, alarm management, and control strategies. Realizing during specification and installation the 5Rs (repeatability, resolution, rangeability, response time, reliability) is more important than price is the key.


For example, consider for line sizes less than 10 inches using Coriolis mass flow meters and magnetic flow meters instead of vortex meters and differential head meters and using globe valves with minimal seating and packing friction and diaphragm actuators instead of rotary valves with piston actuators. Always avoid on-off valves posing as throttling valves as discussed in the Control article “Is your Control Valve an Imposter?”


I suggest that you check out the following Control Talk columns:

Hunter Vegas' Responses:

 Interesting question. I think there are two separate answers to this question:

  • Pick the right team at the start.
  • Manage your team to maximize cohesiveness and performance.

If you fail to execute item #1, then the likelihood of your success accomplishing item #2 may be dramatically reduced!

You do not always have the ability to pick your teambut if you can influence that decision, team management becomes much easier. In my Automation Project Management course, I specifically call out the ability to pick right team as a project management key success factor. Having interviewed and hired dozens of engineers and technicians throughout my career, I have noticed certain trends and traits that are good indicators of a future winning team member:

  • Honesty/openness/ high integrity
  • Quest for knowledge
  • Driven/self-starter/hardworking
  • Thinks before acts, but acts when necessary
  • Smart (but does not have to be the smartest in the room)
  • Dependable/consistent
  • Accepts responsibility for their actions
  • Raw memorythis is not a must have. I have seen people with poor memories be successful by using a variety of techniques to adapt. However, someone with high recall usually has an inherent advantage in automation

Of courseyou do not always have the luxury to pick your own team and in that case, you simply get what you get and do the best with what you have. Regardless of how the team was formed, there are certainly things you can do (or AVOID doing) which dramatically impacts team performance.   In my experience, these items include:

  • Set and communicate clear and consistent expectations
  • Be available and take time to answer questions
  • Hold people accountable for their actions
  • Acknowledge and publicly praise good work and give credit when due
  •  Privately correct issues/failures
  • Trust, but verify team member performanceespecially new team members
  • Grow/teach your team at every opportunity
  • Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each team member:
    • Seek to improve weaknesses
    • Do not assign tasks that poorly match the team member's skill set 
  • Defend and support your teammake sure they know you have their back
  • Above all else lead by example
    • Work harder than everyone on the team
    • Admit your mistakes and shortcomings, own up to your errors
    • Publicly take responsibility for the team’s actions even when they do something wrong
    • Display professionalism and the highest level of integrity
    • Generally be consistent, but be flexible if circumstances warrant it
    • Treat your team members with respect and treat them as you wish to be treated

In reality, these same leadership traits and skills apply to most any team. I have found myself employing many of these same soft skills with soccer, baseball, and basketball teams of all ages and the results can be equally successful. The right coach and/or leader will almost always allow a team to perform far beyond the sum of its parts.

Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including "New Directions in Bioprocess Modeling and Control Second Edition 2020" and "Advanced pH Measurement and Control Fourth Edition 2023." Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Greg has recently retired as a part-time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the digital twin for exploring new opportunities. Greg received the ISA Mentoring Excellence Award in 2020 and the ISA Standards Achievement Award in 2023.

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