Thursday, September 22, 2011

When Should Women Get the Coffee?

I'm still feeling my way through this workplace-etiquette thing. Like this week there was a really important meeting going on and all the managers in the Projects Department met to discuss something really important about the project schedule. Since my new supervisor was responsible for presenting at the meeting, he told me I could sit in. Of course I was only too thrilled to.

When we got to the company's really gorgeous thatched meeting room, we discovered there were no drinks. The meeting was long so I volunteered to go fetch them. When they arrived half an hour later and the porter left them on the table. I felt an urge to get up and serve them to everyone! I was, of course, the only woman in this room of white males so I remained seated and let the meeting continue. If anybody wanted a drink, they could get up and fetch one, right? Why should I feel obligated to serve the men? After all, its important to be careful about the way I portrayed myself to others...

How embarrassing do you think it was for me when my GENERAL WORKS MANAGER PROJECTS (a really good-natured, but very powerful man) got up and started serving everyone drinks...including me! 

I realised at that moment that whilst I may have been the only women in the room, and the only non-white woman at that, I was also the youngest and most junior person in the room. And furthermore, I was just sitting-in in the first place! I realised that in worrying so much about how I came across as a female engineer, I must have come across really insolent as a junior engineer! Wow!

When lunch arrived I duly got up and set out the trays so that everyone could fetch their food (we were all starving). Luckily, soon after the initial episode my GWMP made a tongue-in-cheek comment about something being discussed (as he loves to do) and shot me a smile, asking if I agreed. I did and the tension I was feeling eased up a lot. I even managed to chirp up once or twice towards the end of the meeting.

So the moral of this story is, that whilst it is important to not position yourself as a doormat, and that it is more difficult for a woman to be respected in the workplace that a man, one should realise that respect is always earned. There are no shortcuts to the top, and whilst you are a junior, you should be making the coffee, taking the notes, running the errands - just like every other junior in the place, male or female!

Just don't let them treat you differently to the male juniors, in which case you really should try being more asserive ;)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How to Better Your Chances of Finding A Job in This Economy

I recently wrote a guest-post for engineer-turned writer Anthony Fasano....I thought it may be good for EC too. Here it is:

Every engineering student has heard that ‘an engineer will never be out of work’; it’s a generally accepted belief that our scarce skills will always be sought after. Unfortunately, the recent recession has resulted in large companies grounding major projects, and all of a sudden that perfect graduate job is not so easy to land as expected. In a globally competitive world, if you’re not a top-student, what options do you have to help you stand out from the crowd?

Industry has identified that graduate engineers often have poor communication, leadership and interpersonal skills and an inability to work independently or in multidisciplinary teams. So how can students gain these critical skills and outshine the competition?

Read more of my guest post on

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lean Symposium in Mozambique and Waste Identification Diagrams

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the capital of Mozambique, Maputo for a week-long conference. Mozambique is definitely an interesting place! Its just north of our border (South Africa) but a totally different world. For one, everybody speaks Portuguese. There are a number of local languages of course, but the common vernacular is Portuguese! The Portuguese have left behind more than just the language, and you can see it in the architecture and the distinctive Mediterranean 'flavour' of the locals. Unfortunately, civil war and floods have ravaged the country, leaving much of its people in poverty. Roads are unmaintained and buildings are dilapidated in the capital. Also, the imminent problem of corrupt police creating indescretions and threatening to lock you up (unless you pay them of course) is an annoyance tourists have to deal with.

Note: In Mozambique, carry your passport WHEREVER you go!  I didn't get the memo it seems :/

I was there for the Portuguese-Mozambican Congress on Engineering and presented in the Lean Management Symposium.  Not speaking any Portuguese was...interesting...especially at an engineering conference, but it was actually a pretty cool experience. One thing is for sure, the Portuguese are an awesome bunch of people! They are really friendly, accommodating and they know how to party!

My talk on the research I worked on as a student at the University of Cape Town last year was about how best to teach Lean Thinking to undergraduate engineering students - I provided a 'student's perspective' whilst my ex-supervisor's presentation was all about the teaching of Lean to students (including me). We proposed that not only is it possible for undergrads to gain a depth of understanding of Lean through PBL (Project Based Learning) - where students complete Lean projects within a real company, but that this type of experience teaches them critical soft skills that a conventional engineering degree fails to produce.

One REALLY awesome thing that came out from one of the Symposium's presentations was a new Lean Tool: the Waste Identification Diagram developed by the University of Minho. This is a brand new tool, developed to aid employees in visualising waste in a production line offers a lot more information than the conventional value-stream map.
A Waste Identification Diagram of a real production unit

"The width of the block (X axis) is related to the WIP on that process. The units used to measure WIP may be number of parts, weight units, length units, volume units or their value (currency). The height of the block (Y axis) corresponds to the Takt Time and the height of the green part is the Cycle Time of that process. The difference between the Takt Time and the Cycle Time (CT), shown in orange, represents the unused capacity for that process. The units used for TT and CT are time units (e.g. seconds, minutes or hours) per part.

The depth of the block (Z axis) represents the changeover time or setup time for that process or workstation. When a process needs large setup times a natural and classical consequence is large levels of WIP associated with it. In this way, may be expected that thicker blocks (blocks with high values of C/O) would also be wider (blocks with high values of WIP)."
If you're interested in the WID, send me an email and I'll forward you the conference paper.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see one of Mozambique's famous beaches. My party-loving younger sister (and engineer-to-be) spends every New Years soaking up the sun in Mozambique so its definitely on my to-do list. (Christmas and New Years are in the middle of Summer for us so we usually spend them on the beach! I can just see all my Northern-Hemisphere friends/ readers cringing). ;)