Throw water on it

That’s a picture of an empty pit stall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In a couple of weeks, at the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500, each of the 33 pits will have two of those five-gallon buckets filled with water to throw on a potential fire.

waterPit fires are relatively rare in racing these days, but they do happen. In the heat of competition, cars leave the pits with fuel hoses still attached; fuel gets spilled onto an exhaust, etc. Fire is always a concern and during the race, there will be plenty of firefighters in Nomex suits close at hand with the equipment to handle any contingency. However, what strikes me is that in the midst of this high-tech sport and modern firefighting, the first line of defense against fire is a 5-gallon bucket of water located in arm’s reach. No special training required.

I remember a scary incident a few years ago during a pit stop in which burning fuel ended up in the cockpit of one of the cars. Before the driver could even get unstrapped, the pit crew had that cockpit filled (and the driver covered) with water from those buckets. The fire was out and the whole thing over in literally seconds. The driver was uninjured and actually went on to finish the race, albeit very wet. What could have turned into something disastrous was averted by the simplest of technologies and actions.

To me, the lesson here applies to just about all safety equipment. The best safety measures are those that are the simplest. Vision and hearing protection, safety vests, hard hats, seat belts, and even pocket voltage detectors are all highly effective, but simple devices.

Secondly, safety is best executed by the people and equipment closest to the situation. The key to the situation above was having those buckets within reach of the pit crew. It’s been said before, but no matter how effective a safety device is, not having it close by or not using it is the same as not having it at all.

Do as I say, not as I do

Franklin Electric, along with others, has always promoted the value of periodic check-ups on private water systems. These involve not only having the well water tested once a year, but encouraging homeowners to have their entire system checked on a regular basis. The end goal is to identify issues before they generate an “out of water” service call at the most inconvenient possible time.

That’s good advice, but the reality is that periodic maintenance simply doesn’t happen very often in our industry. That’s always amazed me and I’ve always said that if I were fortunate enough to have my own private water system, it would be very well maintained – It’s a critical system and I wouldn’t leave it to chance. Along these same lines, I’ve been astonished and somewhat dismayed many times on how little homephoto (5)owners know about their water systems.

Fast forward to just a couple of years ago when I was in my own basement changing the air filters in the heating and air conditioning system. Hidden away next to the blower unit is a Little Giant VCMA condensate pump. Today, I can tell you its model number and that it was manufactured in 1998. But until then, I had never taken any notice of it. As a matter of fact, what actually caught my eye was that it looked just like a product that I had just seen at a Franklin P/HVAC seminar.

In that same Franklin seminar, the periodic light maintenance of condensate pumps was emphasized in order to prevent “silly failures” like stuck float switches due to accumulated dirt and dust. So there I was, the proud owner of a Franklin Electric product that I had not only never serviced over the course of five years, but didn’t even realize I owned (Little Giant was acquired by Franklin Electric in 2006).

Granted, my 15 year-old Little Giant condensate pump isn’t quite as critical as a water system. But if it fails, there’s water in the basement and no air conditioning. I was leaving that to chance, just like all those homeowners that never have their water well systems checked.

It’s said that we are all ignorant, but just about different things. As homeowners, I’ve come to believe that’s especially true. And we all ignore simple maintenance, but just on different things.

Innovative thinking

Schaefer notesI received a gift this week, a really meaningful gift. In the process of preparing to move to our new corporate headquarters, someone discovered one of our company founder’s original engineering notebooks, and I was given the privilege of leafing through it.

For those of you who don’t know much about our company history, Franklin Electric was founded in 1944 by two men with a shared entrepreneurial spirit. One of those men was Edward J. Schaefer. Graduating with a degree in electrical engineering in 1923 from John Hopkins University, Mr. Schaefer worked for General Electric for a number of years before he and T. Wayne Kehoe started this company and named after Benjamin Franklin. Today, we’d call the Franklin Electric they founded  a “start-up”.

Mr. Schaefer was always thinking, inventing, solving. Within a few years, he had patented the first reliable submersible motor designed for residential use, and Franklin Electric submersible motors were soon providing a better way to deliver groundwater than other solutions available at the time. Even today, despite many improvements added along the way, Franklin Electric submersible motors still retain much of Mr. Schaefer’s engineering design and thinking. After retiring as CEO in 1985, Mr. Schaefer continued to work essentially full-time at Franklin Electric until his death in 1991 at the age of 90. Over his lifetime, he was awarded over 80 patents.

Looking through the pages, I was in awe. Reviewing page after page of meticulously handwritten notes, I pored over  calculations, graphs, and drawings on electrical motors, their properties, and how to improve them. I found myself steeped in history–and in the presence of a true visionary. Here’s a glimpse of what I saw:

  • A page of differential equations on the “ACCELERATION OF MOTORS” from January 21, 1929.
  • A page of notes and calculations on “REVOLVING FLUX WAVES IN MOTOR ROTORS” dated January 3, 1930.
  • An entire section labeled “MOTOR ACCELERATION KINEMATCS” from 1943.
  • From 1973, several sheets of notes and calculations with the title, “BIMETAL THERMAL TIME DELAY GATE SUPPLY FOR THE TRIAC WINDING CONTROL.” (This is the basic design for the BIAC switch still used today in Franklin Electric 2-wire motors.)

The list goes on and on. The book is packed with designs and calculations done with only the benefit of a slide rule–no pocket calculators, no computer-aided-design.

Open any business publication or advertisement today and you’ll see terms like entrepreneur, innovation, and forward thinking. Today they are part of our accepted business vernacular. Personally, I doubt if Mr. Schaefer ever used the word entrepreneur; I understand that he considered himself to be an electrical engineer first and foremost. But his pages of notes over 44 years remind us that innovation and entrepreneurship are not new. In all fields, our innovations today stand on the innovations of others. People like Edward J. Schaefer brought us this far. It’s our job to do the same for the next generation.

If it’s not right, it’s wrong

440x380_acAwhile back, I was attempting to plug my phone charger into a dimly lit wall outlet in a hotel room. I wasn’t having much success, and only when I realized that the outlet had been installed upside down did I understand why. And not only was the outlet installed upside down, but it was also crooked and the screw on the cover plate had been torqued down to the point that the plate was cracked.

In any case, I got my charger plugged in and never gave it a second thought until a couple of weeks later when I spent a couple of long days in a meeting facility. I happened to notice that every single outlet and switch cover screw in the room were perfectly aligned in the vertical, even those close to the floor that you couldn’t really see.

This practice that makes things look a little better has a name in woodworking: it’s called “clocking”. But is it worth the bother in this case? It certainly doesn’t make any difference in the functionality of the product. And my guess is that I’m the only one who has ever sat in that meeting room and taken notice.

So in the scheme of things, is it a big deal? I think it actually is. It tells me that the electrician who installed these outlets took pride in what he was doing. He took that extra half second to get everything as perfect as he could even though the pay was the same. What’s more important is that I can pretty much guarantee you that all the connections and wiring behind that cover are first-rate and done with the same precision. The attention to detail inspired confidence.

When you think about it, that outlet isn’t much different than a wellhead. People can’t see what’s down in the well. They can’t see your splices or pump alignment or whether you’ve used a flow sleeve. They can, however, see what’s at the top. And if what they see at the top looks sloppy, well, they’ve got to wonder about what’s below. On the other hand, if the workmanship above the ground is precise and well-organized, chances are they’ll make the same assumption about the rest.

There are lots of analogies that we can draw from this, but to me it’s another example of what defines a professional versus someone who is just going through the motions. A professional is willing to take the time to get things right. Not just the big stuff, but the details as well.

That first electrical outlet that was upside down with the broken cover? I have no idea what was behind the plate, but it sure didn’t inspire confidence in the integrity of the rest of the product.

What changed?

Last year, I posted about the value of Franklin Electric’s Form 2207 – Submersible Installation Record as a tool to document a submersible installation for later reference (Inspiring Confidence). Picture1

The other day, I was talking with a drilling contractor and he related that a key piece of information that his company records at the completion of every installation is how much current (amperage) the motor is pulling while it is delivering water.

Down the road, whether it be a few months or many years, if he gets a call about an issue with that installation, that’s a key piece of information he pulls from the file. It’s also one of the first things his crew checks on site (after they’ve eliminated a few of the most obvious causes). The question is, how does the amperage compare to when the installation was new? Is it the same, higher, or lower? Measuring this takes just a couple of minutes but armed with this piece of data, it leads to a very simple decision tree. If the current (amperage) is the same as before, the motor and pump are most likely good, and it’s time to look elsewhere.

But if the current is significantly higher and the unit is still delivering water, that means the motor is working harder than it was when it was installed. That leads to the conclusion that either more water is being pumped (perhaps a broken pipe downhole) or something is making the pump drag.

On the other hand, if the current is lower, that likely means that less water is being pumped. That could be a pump issue (non-working impeller perhaps) or something is blocking the flow of water.

But as he explained, the key is knowing what the amperage was when everything was new and working perfectly. And of course, this piece of information has to be integrated into the bigger picture.

In any case, after presenting the above at countless Franklin seminars, it was good to hear that it’s being put to good use and I wanted to pass that along. After all, it’s one thing to get technical advice at a Franklin seminar, but sometimes hearing that it’s being used in the field every day is even better.

Opportunities abound

carlosNote: Tammy Davis, Director of Corporate Communications at Franklin Electric, provided this week’s post as a guest blogger.

Last week was spring break, and despite my daughter’s protests that “it didn’t sound exotic enough” (yep, that’s a quote), I took my kids to New York City to get a taste of the Big Apple. My son, a huge fan of the TLC show Cake Boss, immediately recognized the city’s proximity to New Jersey and campaigned for a jaunt to Hoboken as part of our adventure. Two trains and a short walk later, we stood in front of Carlo’s Bakery, home of Buddy Valastro the Cake Boss.

A few hundred other people stood in front of Carlo’s, too. Enough to make for a two-hour wait on the sidewalk. Even so, my kids enthusiastically confirmed that they indeed wanted to wait for the chance to get inside the shop; seeing it from the street wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, the weather was good and the people around us were pleasant, so we settled in to wait.

Not long into our confectionery odyssey, I looked up to see a man methodically working his way down the line, group by group. When he got to us, he explained that he worked for Fran’s Italian Deli, a local establishment that offered great sandwiches on the world’s best homemade Italian bread, cold drinks, and free delivery. In fact, he said as he handed us a menu on which he had written his cell number, he would be happy to deliver to us in line. As incentive, he added a discount code to the menu. I thanked him and told him I appreciated his inventiveness, and he moved to the next group of people.

Shortly after he left, I saw this man come back, this time with food. As the line progressed–the wait really was two hours long–I saw him several more times, passing out menus and delivering snacks, sandwiches, and cold drinks to my fellow Carlo’s groupies.

I loved it.

Here was a guy who didn’t bemoan a long line of people waiting to go to somewhere else. He didn’t begrudge the success of a fellow businessman and grumble, Why can’t this be me? Instead, he saw an opportunity, and he capitalized on it. He got creative, and instead of bringing people to his business, he brought his business to them. He assessed their needs and figured out how to address them in a way that meant success for everyone. It gave the people in line something to do, satisfied hungry bellies and thirsty mouths without forcing people to lose their places in line, and it gave the cash coffers of Fran’s Italian Deli an upward bump.

Now contrast this scene with a couple of the other storefronts along the same sidewalk. Employees from those businesses periodically came outside to shoo us waiters away from their doors to accommodate customers who might want to come in. Instead of seeing a potential audience, they saw a definite nuisance. What a missed opportunity.

Which kind of business person are you? The kind who waits for customers to come in? Or the kind who goes to them? The kind who looks for new and creative ways to satisfy people’s needs? Or the kind who does things the same way they’ve always been done? Food service or groundwater service, opportunities abound; go out and get them.

Not drinking at the drinking fountain

photo (4)A few months ago, I attended a week-long class on innovation. The class was built on the premise that successful innovations come from identifying unmet needs and meeting those needs. And, how do you find unmet needs? In many cases, simply by observing how people are currently doing a job. How are they trying to get something done, and what are the obstacles to getting it done?

Here’s a great example – the recent advancement of the humble drinking fountain which had until recently, remained virtually unchanged since the first one was installed in 1912.

Someone started looking at, or perhaps just noticed how people were actually using drinking fountains today. They observed that in many cases, people weren’t drinking directly from the fountain as it was designed, but using it to fill their water bottle. And if you’ve ever done that, you know that it’s an awkward thing to do. You have to tilt the bottle just right, it’s hard to get the bottle full, and you always splash some. There was an unmet need and an obstacle to getting a simple job done.

The innovation is a water fountain that is actually designed to make filling your water bottle as easy as possible. Set your bottle under the nozzle and a sensor turns on a stream of chilled, filtered water automatically. Pull the bottle away and the water stops (or in 20 seconds, whichever comes first).

What I find especially interesting about this innovation is that it not only fills an unmet need by making a job easier, but it also hits some marketing “megatrends” such as consumers’ desire to consume more water but reduce the number of bottles they use. Add to that how much more hygienic this system is, since it minimizes the transfer of viruses due to physical contact.

The conventional drinking fountain isn’t going to disappear and where I’m seeing these, there’s a traditional water fountain next to it. But my guess is that you’re going to start seeing more of these water stations. All because someone saw how a job (filling a water bottle) was getting done and innovated to make it easier.

Like the baseball player Yogi Berra once quipped, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”