Let’s Be Frank: Quit Wasting Precious Time!

By Inspector Frank. October 29, 2020

Editor’s Note:  Writing under the pseudonym Inspector Frank, the author of this column offers a first-hand, candid view of what he has witnessed throughout his career. His purpose in sharing these experiences and opinions is to encourage readers to think deeper about what they do, why they do it, and the possible impact of their decisions.

Inspectioneering is committed to protecting the anonymity of pseudonymous authors. We do, however, hold these contributors to the same editorial standards as those writing under their own name. In this, we know the author’s identity and maintain communications regarding the author’s published works. If you have any questions, feedback, or concerns stemming from this article, please send an email to and we will forward your correspondence to the appropriate party.

Meetings. I really want to talk about meetings. Let’s all have a meeting about meetings right now…

If I sit and start thinking about all of the meetings that I’ve been involved with over my industrial career, some things become evident that are truly mind-blowing. I have attended thousands of meetings that in actuality had no useful purpose and were not thought out ahead of time.

What really boggles the mind is when I begin to think about how much time and money have been wasted on meetings that had no real reason to exist. I have some insights on this but first, let’s look at the wasted time element.

Let’s take one 5-year period in my career. During this time, I attended (at a minimum) two meetings a day. At least one of those meetings generally served no useful purpose. Let’s say that’s an average of 45 minutes wasted a day. If I am working 49 of the 52 weeks in the year, 5 days a week, that roughly equates to 184 hours a year where my time was not used on anything useful. Over that 5-year period, those useless meetings had a cost. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say my cost to the company was $100.00 an hour (salary/benefits/etc.). That means the direct cost for me to be in those meetings over that 5-year run was approximately $92,000; and I didn’t have these meetings by myself. There were on average six other people in those meetings, some of whom made more than me. In this example, let’s just keep the average cost at $100.00 an hour. In total, over five years these meetings cost the company over half a million dollars! And I’m sure we weren’t the only six people attending useless meetings. It starts to give me a headache just thinking about it.

If you went to your boss right now and said “I can save us 500k over the next five years by making one simple change,” I am sure your boss would listen. What is that change? Do not allow any meetings to occur that have not been properly planned out.

Now some of you may never attend useless meetings, in which case, I applaud you and your company. You have already learned. Unfortunately, I have worked in very few places where I don’t attend useless meetings, even as a consultant/contractor.

Why is this a problem? I personally think there are a bunch of reasons for it, sometimes working in combination:

  • Incompetence. Managers who don’t actually understand what they are supposed to be managing. I have been asked to attend many meetings, just so I could answer the questions my boss didn’t know anything about. And I don’t mean minute or specific technical details; I mean upper managers who don’t really understand the ‘broad strokes’ of the integrity programs they are supposedly managing.
  • Fear of being held accountable. Managers who are scared to make a decision for fear of repercussions, or maybe, exposing that they don’t know what they are doing. Many places allow group decisions to diffuse any personal responsibility. That is a separate issue, which I’ve discussed in Let’s Be Frank: Who is responsible?
  • Laziness. People who don’t want to do the job they are supposed to be doing. I have gotten the feeling over my life that there are a lot of people who don’t actually like their jobs and will take any opportunity to avoid doing the work they should be doing. This includes having ‘gab sessions’ under the pretenses of an ‘important’ meeting.
  • Culture. I also think organizations can develop and foster an unhealthy culture around meetings. I think over time companies get the feeling that the best way to solve problems is collaboratively (which I agree with), but that this can turn into having to bring every topic to a meeting for discussion. Also, collaboration doesn’t alter the fact that ultimately somebody has to be the one responsible for the item being collaborated on.
  • Lack of Planning/Foresight. I think meetings also get used as an excuse to talk about ‘action items’ that the people involved haven’t actually acted on. I have been to many meetings where something that came up weeks ago now has to be addressed in a panic because it just got left until the last minute. Might as well panic together in a meeting!
  • Deflection. Meetings can also be a way to diffuse responsibility after the fact and/or cover up the lack of work on the part of key players.

So how do we fix this endless potential waste of time? Do we try to address the items above and actually get the right people in key places? Well of course, but that is not going to be an easy change in most bureaucratic systems.

Is there an easy fix? For meetings, yes. There are multiple tools out there, but you have to understand, embrace, and actually use them to have any real impact. Kind of like running a truly effective RBI program. It takes some thought and prework. Not just throwing some contacts on an invite with a topic line and hitting send.

I am going to steal something from the military here, as it is something I have continued to use in various ways. Most NATO countries use something called the ‘5-paragraph order’ at a small unit level, otherwise known as SMESC for Situation, Mission, Execution, Service/Support, and Command and Signals (there are minor variations like SMEAC and others, but they all follow a standardized format to allow for interoperability within NATO forces).

For the purposes of running a useful meeting, I have presented my simplified version below. If this interests you, I would recommend reviewing the actual military version by searching the term ‘5-paragraph order’ online. It can be a useful tool for planning other things as well. Please note for the purposes of meetings, I have really derailed and bastardized some of the military’s original intent.

  1. Situation Why do you need this meeting? What is the situation that calls for disrupting people’s workdays and bringing them all together for a period of time?
  2. Mission – What is the desired outcome of this meeting? When you bring everyone together what is it you want to accomplish? Is there a better way to accomplish the desired outcome? For example, if the purpose of the meeting is to pass on information, is there a better way to do it? Like maybe an email… or a rant in Inspectioneering?
  3. Execution – What is the format of the meeting? Who needs to be present and why? What are the minimum items that need to be covered in order to accomplish the meeting (think agenda, but not one that is full of useless garbage)? How much time do you need to cover each element of the meeting to accomplish the meeting’s mission?
  4. Service/Support Do you need any aids to execute the meeting in order to achieve the desired outcome? Do you have people who love to derail meetings by bringing in other topics? Maybe you need a referee - someone to rein in the people who are going off-topic, but who isn’t actually involved in the meeting themselves (otherwise known as a facilitator - someone whose sole purpose is to keep the meeting on time and agenda). Do you have an appropriate space to hold the meeting? Hopefully, one that is free of other distractions.
  5. Command and Signals What is the output you desire from the meeting? Is it action items for a path forward? A consensus decision between operations and maintenance? A set of minutes to capture the complete waste of time you organized because you didn’t actually plan the meeting out?

If you don’t have these 5 points sorted out ahead of the meeting then don’t call the meeting.

Let’s run a little scenario here:

The standard ultrasonic testing survey has picked up much lower thicknesses than anticipated in a piping circuit (meaning a very high corrosion rate (CR)). A percentage of these readings were confirmed with radiographic testing. This circuit has been monitored for years with consistent CRs and the Equipment Integrity (EI) group can find no reasonable explanation for this new high CR when they review what they know about the process. The remaining life of the circuit has just dropped from 15 years to 3 months. In order to follow up properly on the rest of the unit’s equipment, they need to know what is going on so other potentially affected equipment can be identified. Also, without knowing the reason, mitigation is unlikely to be effective.

We need this figured out now so let’s call a meeting! In this scenario, this is what I would send out on the meeting invite, which also serves as the agenda:

Situation: The Vac bottoms circuit in Vac #1 has undergone a dramatic change in corrosion rates sometime in the last 2 years (time since the last survey). The consistent corrosion behavior the EI group has been monitoring has changed drastically from 1mpy (mils per year) to 64mpy. This means the line will not make the run to the next scheduled outage on the unit. The reason for this change in CR is unknown at this time.

Mission: The driving mechanism for this change in CR must be identified and a plan made to mitigate. The purpose of this meeting is to come up with actionable items to achieve both a potential short-term and long-term game plan.

Execution (meeting time of 65 minutes):

Attendees (9): Area Inspector, Area Maintenance Engineer, Area Process Engineer, Process Technology Expert for Crude/Vac, Plant Corrosion Engineer, Supervisor Equipment Integrity, Supervisor Process, Supervisor Accounting, Confidential Secretary

  1. Safety moment – to be completed by the Area Maintenance Engineer - 2 minutes
  2. Brief overview – Supervisor EI3 minutes
  3. Review of history and current data on line – Area Inspector (please be prepared with slides showing affected P&IDs, monitoring points, inspection history, and findings) – 10 minutes
  4. Review of any known changes in operation over the last two years that could have changed product flow through the line or operating temperatures – Area Process Engineer (identify all known sampling locations, pressure and temperature indicators, and present historical trends) – 10 minutes
  5. Review of any maintenance work done on the system in the last two years (provide a list of work orders) – Area Maintenance Engineer5 minutes
  6. Review of incoming crude slate changes in the last two years (provide any known sampling information and trends) – Process Technology Expert5 minutes
  7. Discussion on potential causes for the high CR – Plant Corrosion Engineer10 Minutes
  8. Discussion on other potentially affected equipment – Area Process Engineer5 minutes
  9. Discussion on potential paths forward – All present10 minutes
  10. Assignment of action items (including due dates) – Supervisor EI and Supervisor Process5 minutes

Service Support: The meeting will be held in room 204. The Supervisor EI will ensure that a laptop, data projector, and screen are present. Any digital data you will need to use for your portion of the meeting should be placed in the ABC folder on the EI drive. The Confidential Secretary will ensure beverages and a light snack is available for all attendees.

The Confidential Secretary will take minutes (including attachments of data used in the meeting) and send this out by the end of the day. The Supervisor of Accounting will act as a facilitator to ensure the meeting stays on time and topic.

Command and Signals: Minutes detailing the discussion and assigned action items with due dates will be sent to all attendees and the Plant Manager. The Supervisor EI is responsible for ensuring all action items are completed on time.

That’s it. Did it take a bit of time to draft a meeting invite like this? Of course. But if I am going to take up the valuable time of personnel in my company, I should spend some time making sure it’s worth it and serving a useful purpose.

What happens if a portion of the meeting starts going over the allotted time but is still useful? Turn it into an action item and assign it to an individual or team to further follow up and report on. Do not allow the meeting to go over the times you have assigned.

If you find yourself going to meetings that someone hasn’t put the time in to prepare then ask yourself “what are we really accomplishing here?” Does it seem like a good use of your time?

From personal experience in these days of COVID-19 restrictions and modified work situations, I see a much higher percentage of useless meetings occurring as people try to poorly manage their way through a crisis. When things get tough, you really find out how good or bad an organization is. And useless meetings are not a sign of a good organization.

“Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.”

- Peter Drucker (Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author)


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Comments and Discussion

Posted by CHETAN KAPADIA on November 23, 2020
Very good direction to improve & save time on... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Alan Murray on November 24, 2020
Agreed most meetings are a waste of valuable time... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

(Inspectioneering) Posted by Inspector Frank on November 25, 2020
I too like the three P meeting structure,... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

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