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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Management by Ongoing Observation

Once upon a time, two business authors named Peters and Waterman wrote a blockbuster best-seller called In Search of Excellence. This management classic was known for many great improvements in modern management, and most companies sent their executives to seminars on the book in the 1980's. I don't think it an exaggeration to say that company management was never the same after the book.

Perhaps the best known practice that came of the book was one labeled "Management By Walking Around", or MBWA. The late eighties and early nineties saw a proliferation of bosses roaming the halls and making frequent trips through the shop or plant, making themselves available to employees, shaking hands, asking questions, and showing concern, in an effort to get a better grip on the business and break through traditional communication barriers that were recognized as a source of passive confusion at best, and active employee resistance at worst.

Well, sometimes it worked. More often, it was counterproductive...employees hopes were raised by being able to sound off personally to the top dog, and to be crushed again when their issue was ultimately ignored or rejected, and their immediate supervisor glared at them every time the issue was raised. MBWA came to be recognized by many as MBMW, or management by muddying the waters.

And in the mid-90's, modern technology began to change the playing field upon which Peters and Waterman trod. Email became an easier, more efficient, and safer way for managers to play the communication game, and the top folks began to insulate themselves from the dirty details that occurred daily out on the floor. Much to the approval of front-line supervisors, who once again had freedom to intimidate the folks under them without management interference.

While this was going on, I had the great fortune to be learning from a wide range of managers with varying styles. On reflection, I think I learned the best lessons on running an organization from a modest, low-profile plant manager named Jim in West Memphis, Arkansas.

As a grad student, I had a great opportunity to spend a summer in Temple-Inland's West Memphis gypsum operation. The plant manufactured gypsum wallboard, commonly known by USG's tradename "sheetrock". I was there to build a computerized manufacturing "expert system", the subject of my doctoral dissertation. It was on one of my first trips to the plant that I first observed and began to recognize a management style that I later came to call "management by ongoing observation."

On this particular visit, I had set up my computer in the meeting room that had been designated as my work space for the summer. My usual habit was to start out by checking in with Jim, to let him know I was in the plant and to see if he had any instructions for me. But this time, his office was empty and the office assistant was out. So I found the first person I could, who happened to be the operations supervisor. I asked him if he knew where Jim was, and was told he was "up on the pup tent" out in the plant.

Well, I didn't want to look too stupid, so without further ado I began wandering out into the plant, wondering what a pup tent was doing out there and how Jim happened to be up on it.  Fortunately, I didn't have to wander too far, when I realized that "pup tent" was the East Arkansawn rendering of "pulp tank". There was Jim, standing up on a large tank that held thousands of gallons of watered-down recycled paper, starch, soap, and a few other chemicals which was called pulp and was added to the gypsum slurry to improve the various properties of the wallboard.

I hollered at Jim, and he waved me up. As I attained the summit, I found Jim fastidiously hosing down the top of the tank. The pulp had a tendency to splash out of the top of the tank when the chemicals were added, since the tank was continuously agitated by two giant paddles, and dried pulp remnants grew daily on the top of the tank. At least until Jim arrived for his daily chore.

I thought it sort of odd for Jim to be out there in his boots with his pants rolled up, shirt and face splashed with pulpy splatters, performing a task that at any other operation would be assigned to the lowest person on the totem pole. In fact, I came to find out that Jim's being "up on the pup tent" was an inside joke and slight source of derision among certain other T-I managers who maintained clean shirts and shiny shoes in their own jobs. Nevertheless, I walked over to make my requisite check-in with the boss.

As we talked, I began to notice that Jim kept glancing over my shoulder. I managed to ease myself into a better view, and I soon realized that Jim was watching the operation while he hosed down the tank. Not watching in a spying sort of way, but just observing the plant as it lived and breathed. From the top of the pup tent you could see the critical mixer station, where the pulp combined with calcined gypsum called "stucco" in a large round device called a pin mixer, and the resulting slurry flowed between two large rollers that fed the wallboard paper faces, and deposited the resultant continuous "board" onto a belt. The board continued on the belt for a couple of hundred feet, and then, as the board stiffened through the hydration and crystallization of the gypsum core, it rolled onto a series of rollers that then carried the board to a turnaround in the line several hundred feet further on. At this "end" of the line, the board was cut into individual boards, flipped over, and transferred sideways onto a pivoting ramp that fed the several levels of the board dryer. The individual boards returned and exited the dryer near the mixer station. A control room was located between the mixer station and the dryer exit, and this control room was where my expert system was to be commissioned upon its completion.

I was transfixed by the sight, my first real view of the process. Jim and I stood there and just watched for several minutes. And I realized that most of the critical process points were visible from where we stood. If the slurry became too thick or thin causing a build-up or run-out of the slurry head, we could see it. If the paper broke as it approached or ran through the rollers, we would know instantly and be able to observe the process operators reaction to the situation. If there was a chemistry problem causing the board to fall through as it left the belt and hit the rollers, we would know. And if the boards were exiting the dryer too wet or dry, we could see the trends displayed by lights above the dryer that worked on moisture sensors at the dryer exit. We also could see the much of the board warehouse, and the forklifts that ran continuously unloading the dryer and stacking the boards in the designated area.

Over the next few months, I came to understand why Jim seemed to have a better intimate knowledge and control of his plant than other plant managers I was working with. Not only was he observing the operation for a significant period of time each day, at different times of the day, but his employees always knew that they could scramble up and bring an issue, whether personal or professional, to Jim while he was out on the tank. I also came to understand that even though Jim wasn't really a "buddy" of the plant employees, he had their complete respect and admiration. Because to them, he was working with them, not just telling them what to do. When he recommended an action, corrected a poor decision, or disciplined an employee, it was based on his intimate knowledge of the situation, not just a quick reaction to a self-serving second-hand report.

And Jim extended his attention to detail when he returned to his office. Trained as an accountant, he had worked as the plant controller before becoming the plant manager. He had trained the next controller personally, and she worked essentially as an extension of Jim's brain. He studied his plant's books daily, even while various colored lights in his office kept him in constant awareness of the plant's operational situation. In short, Jim knew his operation. And it was consistently one of Temple-Inland's top-performing operations during his tenure.

Now, Jim never really trusted my presence in the plant. After all, I was a smart-a college boy working on a system that supposedly was going to diagnose the operation better than the human operators in close to real-time, commissioned by the veeps at company headquarters. He didn't buy it, and in hindsight, I can't blame him.

But what I learned from Jim I used to much success in the rest of my career. I still spend time observing an operation in detail, for hours or days if necessary, when asked to diagnose a particular problem. During my industry years I guess I had a reputation as sort of an oddball...I would climb up in catwalks, make myself comfortable, and sit for hours apparently doing nothing, since I didn't have a hose handy or authorization to use one, if there was. But I had this way of seeing things others in the plant just couldn't see, even though they spent eight hours every day looking at them. I remember one plant manager, after I had diagnosed a problem with a particleboard press, asking me as we walked and I showed him the symptoms of his problem, "How do you see that stuff?"

I just thought of Jim with his hose, spraying down the pup tent.

To you company managers who want to try "Management By Ongoing Observation", or MBOO, try this: find a simple task you can perform personally in the shop or plant everyday. The humbler the task the better; don't try to show up the employees. Just something that makes you part of the team, and allows for your daily interaction with folks in action. You might be amazed at how well things begin to click for everyone.

If you don't think you have the time for it, just many hours do you spend reading and answering emails that relate to operational issues, or reading reports related to operational problems that could have been prevented?

And then well would your family work if you communicated with your spouse and children only by email?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wood Science 101(14) - Equilibrium Moisture Content

I'm retired (sort of) from the forest products industry and now have time for more serious activities such as archery hunting, fly fishing, grandchild watching and my furniture building hobby. I have some nice quarter sawn red oak that has air dried to 18% m.c. outdoors. I now have this surfaced stock in my shop in the house awaiting further drying before being used to make a bedroom set. I need help making a determination as to what I can expect this wood will equalize to given the 65 degree and 60% relative humidity of my house. The humidity will be closer to 30% during the winter.  
Can you direct me to an internet site where I can find this information? Any help will be greatly appreciated. 
Jack Buckler
PSU School of Forestry - 1969

Hi, Jack. 
Thanks for the interesting little problem in calculation. In effect, you are asking "What is the Equilibrium Moisture Content (EMC) of wood at 65F and 60% RH, versus 65F and 30%RH...correct? 
In the old days, we used to consult the EMC charts in the Wood Handbook or the Dry Kiln Operators Manual. Unfortunately, the Wood Handbook Figure 4-1 is a "contour" chart that you have to eyeball and guesstimate, while the DKOM Figure 1-7 assumes temperatures of 70F, 141F, and 212F. So we used to always just fudge our estimates from the nearest line that related to what we were trying to calculate. 
Nowadays, we have a better way to do it. I programmed the equations referenced in the 2010 Edition of The Wood Handbook, page 4-3, into an Excel spreadsheet, and after doing so plugged in your 65-60 and 65-30 conditions to find that in the first case, the wood would reach equilibrium at 11.1%, and in the second case, 6.2%. 
This is a nice illustration of to what degree wood shrinks and swells with the change of season. Hardwood is usually kiln-dried to about 6-7% MC for sale to furniture manufacturers. So your obvious solution in the absence of a dry kiln would be to store the wood in your home this winter until it gets down into this range, and then start your project. Make sure the wood is "stickered" (that is, stacked with open spaces between each board) so that each piece of wood gets fully and evenly equalized. How long it takes to get to these moisture contents varies depending on the type of wood...oak takes longer than most other species of wood. 
In case you're interested in playing around with the numbers, I'm attaching the spreadsheet I built for your analysis. You can plug in different temperatures (T) and relative humidities (h) and the resulting EMC will be displayed in the first column. I went ahead and plugged in a range of h's between .6 and .3 for your information. 
Good luck with the project. 
Equilibrium Moisture Content (EMC) is defined as the moisture content at which wood is neither gaining nor losing moisture, the ideal condition for the manufacture and use of wooden products. Many a wooden chair has been made from components machined prior to reaching EMC, and subsequently fallen to pieces due to the wood shrinking and pulling out of the joints. Wood's ability to pull apart in shrinking is absolutely amazing...I remember seeing a boat dock in Texas that had been built with deck screws (and improperly dried lumber) that had pulled itself apart and fallen in the lake in the middle of its first winter. The owner was not happy.

In case you're also interested in being able to calculate EMC for your wood project, I've uploaded the EMC spreadsheet I programmed for Jack to our Penn State WoodPro website. Just click here, then click on the link labeled "Equilibrium Moisture Content Calculator", and the Excel file will download to your computer after asking you where you would like to download the file to. I've added a second tab for you internationals who still insist on referring to temperatures by the Celsius temperature scale.

If you're interested in knowing what your wood will equalize to outdoors in your geographic region, this document has Tables 2 and 3 that list outdoors EMC in major cities in the United States (Table 2) and around the world (Table 3). Find the nearest city in the tables, and your outdoors EMC will be just about the same.

Wood working requires patience...make sure the wood is fully dry and equalized before you start your masterpiece.

Update: Bill Smith at SUNY-ESF just made me aware that Scott Leavengood at Oregon State has developed some neat tools for determining shrink and swell in wood that is species-specific. Click here for a great calculator that allows you to input a species code, the lumber orientation, and your initial and final moisture conditions, and you'll see how much your wood will shrink in both thickness and in width.

They also have a neat map of the United States that shows the EMC in each state by month. Click here to use the map. The map indicates what the outdoor EMC of wood under conditions that prevail in each state during each month are. This is useful if you happen to be storing wood outside for a future can figure out how much the EMC will change when you move it indoors for working and use, or you can figure out how much the EMC will vary in outdoor wood applications in your area over the course of a year.

One last point...I've had inquiries about EMC relative to different species. It is true that EMC will vary slightly not only by species but by different specimens within the same species. This is due to the variability of wood...different pieces have different cellular arrangement, different levels of extractives, tyloses, etc. So the EMC results you obtain from these tools should be treated with recognition that ultimate EMC will vary somewhat from the theoretical numbers. The best way to know when your wood is equalized is to simply monitor the moisture content on a regular basis and note the rate of change. When the rate of change flattens out, then your wood has reached EMC for those conditions. And remember, if the temperature and relative humidity conditions keep changing, such as when the wood is outdoors or in a building where fluctuations are not tightly controlled, then the EMC of the wood will change right along with them.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Shine on, Harvest Moon

I was awakened last night by a bright light streaming in through the bedroom window. Slightly in a daze, I crawled out of bed and stumbled into the dining room, and then out onto the porch.

The whole yard was bathed in the sterling clear light of the Harvest Moon, that full moon that occurs around this time of year. The Harvest Moon is famous for being so large in the early evening sky, but I had missed that. Instead, I was seeing a moon high in the 2 am sky, shining so brightly I could have gotten out and mowed the grass if I had wanted to. The trees were casting shadows as clear as any noonday sun ever created.

This morning I looked up the writings of my old friend, Eric Sloane, in his classic "The Seasons of America Past".
"Poets call autumn the melancholy season, but to American farmers it was the season of fulfillment and a time of rejoicing. Why else would they have chosen September as the Season of Fairs? The only melancholy of September is experienced by school children, who realize better than anyone else that vacation is done...
The most typically American of all seasons might well be Indian summer...Legend has it that Indian Summer was so named because of the atmospheric haze present at that time, and that the pioneers associated it Indian war fires. Actually this was the season that the Red Man went into the interior to prepare for winter hunting, and the oft-mentioned 'Indian fires' were only those used for scaring game into traps and groups of hunters.
This season of haze, the last sweet smile of the declining year, still reigns from coast to coast as the most American of American seasons; its magnitude has far superseded its historical interest through Indian lore. This was the farmer's brief season for a vacation from work, for relaxation by hunting, and fishing, and exploring. And what better time than this exists, when nature and weather combine to put on the greatest show in America?
September is the season of the Harvest Moon. The full moon that falls nearest the autumnal equinox (on or about September 21) is in that part of its orbit where it makes the smallest angle with the horizon. For several nights in succession the moon rises at nearly the same hour, giving an unusual proportion of moonlit nights. Since it rises slower, the "huge" effect of the moon is exaggerated, and the harvest moon is therefore supposed to appear larger ad redder than the moon of any other season. Many a harvest has been worked in the open field only by the light of a full September moon."
So there, I had experienced what many a farmer had counted on in earlier, simpler days...the inspiring light of the Harvest Moon. The same moon that inspired possibly one of the sweetest and best songs of the twentieth century...

I love the fall...time to get after the wood.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (46) - The Commercial Wood Building

I recently was asked by Keith Craig, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council, to participate in a booth presentation for the Keystone Wood Products Association at an upcoming Green Building Expo in Philadelphia. In asking, Keith mentioned that there was considerable concern that the steel and concrete industries are continuing, and perhaps even increasing, to put out misinformation about the green qualities of wood as a construction material.

My immediate thought was that this is a good sign. When your competition isn't concerned about you, they just ignore you. It's when they understand that you're making headway that they really begin to fight back. And in this case, trying to convince people that steel and concrete are "greener" than wood is sure to foster more discussion about the comparisons, and these discussions will always result in wood coming out as the green alternative. Architect Michael Green from Vancouver is at the forefront of making architects and engineers, and perhaps more importantly, policy leaders, reconsider wood in their future projects.

Mr. Green and his collaborating engineering firm recently broke ground on what will be, at least temporarily, North America's tallest wood building. These thoughts, and projects, are being echoed by design leaders the world around. The following series of videos from naturally:wood on projects in Europe illustrate that we are on the brink of a tremendous renaissance of wood building.

I put this one first because it demonstrates the dynamic flexibility in design that solid wood and glulam offer the architect. The role of advanced machining technology, and the role it plays in unique wood structures, is highlighted in the video.

The next video features a perhaps less glamorous, but potentially even more profitable sector for wood in construction - retail. The narrator comments on studies that show that people linger longer in wooden buildings, and that is a great thing and tangible value to retailers.

Wood is good now, has always been good, and people are starting to get it. Keith, I have a feeling we're going to have a lot of interest in the KWPA booth at that Green Build Expo.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The National Wood Collection at the Forest Products Lab

I've been quite busy with a new project this summer. This spring, I was made aware of an old collection of wood samples that had been stored away for the last fifty years in a closet at the end of a hall. I've moved the collection over to my lab and have been working to uncover the mysteries of multiple collections, old deceased wood professors, and beautiful samples of wood I've never even heard of. All together, we have something over 2,000 species of wood and 6,000-8,000 specimens here at Penn State. All partially documented in the 1950's and before.

I've been trying to build a database of the collection in order to get a better handle of what it contains. Finally, it occurred to me to take a visit to the largest such collection in North America, the US Forest Service collection at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Headquartered in what is called the Center for Wood Anatomy Research, it is truly an interesting place to visit. The collection amassed there is overwhelming...I could get lost in there for weeks just looking at blocks of wood. Click here for an interesting write up of the collection, which consists of over 100,000 specimens of some 14,000 species. I consider this collection one of the rare jewels in the world of wood, and it's great that the US Forest Service has preserved it for posterity.

Mike Wiemann, a botanist who has worked with the collection for the past twelve years, was my host on this visit, and as he explained various facets of the collection it occurred to me to shoot a video of Mike showing us around the collection.

He kindly agreed, so here it is...

Sorry, the auto-focus seemed to fuzz out in the second half of the video. I'll take better care in the future.

Mike helped me understand the whole concept of institutional wood collections and the relationship between them. As I work to resurrect the Penn State collection, I'll be working in collaboration with the Mike and the FPL to ensure that our labeling and organization is consistent with professional standards. And of course, I'll keep you posted on interesting aspects of the collection as I uncover them.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Fire Place"

The last post about the ecology of fires out west reminded me of a chapter I recently read in a book mentioned in the post "Why We'll Never Run Out of Energy". In the book 1491, author Charles C. Mann tells an insightful story of how our perception of Native Americans and their use of the land is distorted by modern idealistic tendencies. Especially interesting to students of ecosystem science and management in North America is this section from his chapter, "Fire Place."
"Adriaen van der Donck was a lawyer who in 1641 transplanted himself to the Hudson River Valley...[and] spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee, whose insistence on personal liberty fascinated him. They were, he wrote, 'all free by nature, and will not bear any domineering or lording over them.'
... "Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to 'the woods, plains, and meadows,' to 'thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.' At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. 'Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks,' he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists' boats passed through a channel of fire, their passengers as goggled-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. 'Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides...a delightful scene to look on from afar.'
"Van der Donck believed that North America was only 'several hundred miles' across, and apparently assumed that all its inhabitants were exactly like the Haudenosaunee. He was wrong about the first belief, but in a sense correct about the second: from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Hudson's Bay to the Rio Grande, the Haudenosaunee and almost every other Indian group shaped their environment, at least in part, by fire.
"Early in the last century, ecologists discovered the phenomenon of 'succession', the more or less well-defined sequence by which ecosystems fill in open land. A textbook example occurred after the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens, in southern Washington State, which inundated more than two hundred square miles with magma, volcanic ash, and mud. Surviving plants sprang quickly to life, sometimes resprouting within weeks. Then colonizing species like lupine appeared, preparing the ground for the return of the grasses. Fifteen years after the eruption, the ravaged slopes were dotted with trees and woody shrubs: red alder, lodgepole pine, willow bush. Here and there gleamed the waxy red boles of madrone. Forest giants like hemlock, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce waited in the wings. In the classic successional course, each suite of plants replaces its predecessor, until the arrival of the final, 'climax' ecosystem, usually tall forest.
... "Set off by lightning, wildfires reset the ecological clock, dialing the array of plants and animals back a few successional stages. Fire benefits plants that need sunlight, while inhibiting those that love the cool gloaming of the forest floor; it encourages the animals that need those plants even as it discourages others; in turn, predator populations rise and fall. In this way fire regulates ecological character.
"Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it - at least until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used 'to set fire of the country in all places where they come.' The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska; all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.'  Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles.
"Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the number of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry brambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first Europeans in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks - they could drive carriages through the trees. Fifteen miles from shore in Rhode Island, Giovanni de Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that the forest 'could be penetrated even by a large army.' John Smith claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.
"Incredible to imagine today, bison occurred from New York to Georgia. A creature of the prairie, Bison bison was imported to the East by Native Americans along a path of indigenous fire, as they changed enough forest into fallows for it to survive far outside its original range...
... "Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm. Most of Indiana and part of Illinois, for instance, was prairie of 'barrens' when it was first surveyed in 1818-20; a 2009 study of surviving trees from the pre-European era showed that even in thickly forested areas fires intense enough to scar trunks occurred, on average, every 2.82 years. Because 'lightning strikes in [this area] are usually accompanied by rain that would quickly extinguish any lightning fires,' researchers from Southern Illinois University and Principia College wrote in 2010, 'nearly all these early fires' were likely due to human activity. Further west, the same burning occurred, but on even grander scale. Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by the cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first. 'When Lewis and Clark headed west from [St. Louis],' wrote ethologist Dale Lott, ' they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.'
... "Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature - but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if 'stable' is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash. And it was a system that Indians were abandoning in ever-rising numbers at the time when Europeans came."
We've seen in a previous post how the wisdom of the Natives performed far better in maintaining a balance in nature than our progressive preservationist land management policies. This excerpt from 1491 reminds us in even more poignant detail that what we might call "common sense", that kind of wisdom derived from generations of living on and with the land, may seem harsh by today's standards, but not as harsh as the gigantic conflagrations, forest-consuming pest populations, and shrinking species diversity brought about by our short-sighted attempts to "save" our forests and environment through bureaucratic regulation.

The lesson that stewardship requires active involvement of man with the land, learned by our early pioneers and environmental leaders from The People, has been forgotten and replaced with a religion of excluding man from productively interacting with the forest. To the great detriment of man, beast, fowl, and fish, and the land that supports them all.