Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Magic Finger – Directors Cut

When I was a planner I had the good fortune to work for an extraordinary man… let’s call him Socrates. Much of what I say first came out of his mouth. I miss his teaching and fellowship every day.


Socrates had many lessons about how to run outages, to tell many of them I have to first describe what the Magic Finger is.

To the casual observer the “Magic Finger” looks like the pointer finger on your hand and in truth it is. The magic of the “Magic Finger” is much more complicated to explain but like all things of genius, it is eventually elegantly simple.

My first job with Socrates started in a strange way.

Back in the day we traveled from job to job in 40 cargo containers made into field offices. We were setting up my very first “big” job as a planner, more than a hundred thousand man-hours. We had material to stage, scaffolding to build, rigging to hang, tools to load in. Lot of stuff to do and I was chomping at the bit to get it going

Socrates, however, would not let anything start until he had 10 drum door gaskets on a nail over his desk in our trailer. Being young, brass and ambitious I wanted to start, I had things to do and here was this funny old guy sternly saying NO!

I tried to convince him, tried to go around him, tried to get other Forman to convince him, he would not be moved. Finally after a few days, I overnighted the gaskets. The next day I hammered in nails over his desk and hung the gaskets. Socrates was finally happy, he took his finger and touched the gaskets and said “Kid, do you know what this is?” holding his finger towards me “It’s a Magic Finger


I burst out “are you ****in kidding me, I have over 50 trucks of stuff waiting to get here and you give me this magic finger BS, your nuts”. Luckily, Socrates was a very patient man, he laughed at my juvenile outburst. He then said come with me. We walked outside and touched all the nose tubes, the burner corner parts, the superheat pendants, I could barely contain myself, I had work to do! And this guy was making me touch each part that was lying around the plant. After each thing he would make me touch it with my “Magic Finger” and hold it up to him. This went on all day, after a while I just relented I figured today was shot tomorrow is another day.

The next day I had a veritable army of manpower, equipment and stuff to do. I told one Forman to get the nose tubes and get them in the north well, another Forman I told to get the burner parts laid out etc. etc. all day long people asked me where things were and miraculously I knew (or I should say my “Magic Finger” knew) the day went very well as did the entire outage.

During a different outage years later, I did not use my magic finger. I was too busy and too important I had people for that now. We were installing a system on a high pressure 1.4 million pound per hour boiler that would pressure drop and desuperheat the steam to 400 psi with 10 degrees of superheat.

I was told that one of the three main stop valves were being delivered, these were big valves but we were in the “big” business nothing scared me. I got the call from receiving that the valve was here. I got the forklift guy on the radio and told him to pick it off the truck.

Sometime later he came up to the trailer and said he couldn’t get the valve off the truck. I belittled him “awe did the big bad valve kick your ass”, He just looked back at me and said “it’s a big valve and it ain’t coming off the truck, it’s your problem now smart guy” and then he stomped out of the trailer.


I found one of my Forman “can you go down and get the valve off the truck, the forklift driver is having a bad hair day”. Off went the Forman and he soon came back “That’s the biggest valve I ever saw, It’s not coming off the truck”.

I was incredulous, I was the “great and powerful…well me” now I had to stop what I was doing and walk the three blocks to the elevator and down to the street, and back another two blocks to get to the truck, cursing loudly and liberally as I went. When I got to the back of the truck and turned to see the valve I nearly fell over just from the sight of it. It was absolutely the biggest valve I have ever seen and I knew instantly I was an ******* (you know the word). We had to send the truck to our crane yard and lift the valve off with a 50 ton crane.

The magic of the “Magic Finger” is contained in the phrase “if you didn’t see it, or touch it, shut the “F” up”. Try this test, Ask a question and listen to the answers you get more times than not you get something that is resembles an answer but not the answer.

For example:

Q. “Do we have a spare shaft”

A. “There should be one in the warehouse” …you see this does not answer the question does it!

Q. “Can someone check the shaft is in the warehouse”

A. “That’s the ware house guy/girl’s job they should know

Q. “Can we call them right now and see if the shaft is in the warehouse”

A. “I’m on the phone with them they say that there is a shaft on the shelf”

Q. “Is it the right shaft”

A. “It should be”

This can go on and on, I’m sure I’m being over dramatic and this never happens in your plant.


Lets take the “Magic Finger” out for a spin and see what that conversation looks like

Q. “Do we have a spare shaft”

A1. “I don’t know, my “Magic Finger” did not see it or touch it so I’m shutting the “F” up”

A2. “Yes”

A3. “No”

This seems much simpler to me, but then again I’m a simple guy.

Moral of the Story:

Being able to communicate clearly and succinctly doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work and work takes tools. The “Magic Finger” is a tool; it is a tool that gets used over and over again and again. It has never failed me although I have failed it many times

Rule of Thumb:

Listen to the answers you get, If they are not to your liking, teach them about their “Magic Finger”


Directors Cut Notes

Socrates would be in the middle of a conversation about the job and suddenly hold up his crooked pointer finger and if someone had not touched whatever we were speaking about (usually me in the beginning) all conversation would stop and you had to go out right then and there and come back with a dirty fingertip or he would not speak to you.

After I was fully indoctrinated in the “Magic Finger” society when these instances would happen (He holding is finger up) I would respond with my own one finger salute (the pointer finger, not everything is R rated!)

Once this ground rule was established (as well as many others) it was truly amazing to do great things with Socrates and never have to really say anything.

The highest expression of this seamless team work was that we were able to design and install a class “A” project in a nuclear plant with non-nuclear trained mechanics. In 6 months we demo’d 41 tons of stainless by hand, ran hundreds of feet of pipe, converted 3 fifty foot high tanks all while the engineers designed it in the field with us. We did all this while maintaining all of the nuclear class A package standards. Team work doesn’t even begin to describe it.

It’s Been Lovely Having You…Now Get The F**k Out

The fat lady singing

Other luminaries have expressed the same sentiment as

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”               

Ben Franklin

“Making a long stay short is a great aid to popularity.”         

Kin Hubbard

“My evening visitors, if they cannot see the clock should find the time in my face.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Alas, I’m from Jersey, I said it was lovely having you…that’s nice right?  For the last part, well I was trying to make a point and get everyone’s attention all at the same time…perhaps I over shot.

The Point

In every outage there comes a time when the “work style” has to shift dramatically.

What do I mean by that?  Well I’m glad you asked.

The beginning of the outage is all about motion and moving material, whether it is demo going out or new material coming in, it’s all about motion.

When I was I @ Con Ed,  my division’s management (which included me) went to Rutgers to have our business studied (We were a 1000 man outage gang made up of Con Ed workers represented by the utility workers union. We did all the work in the stations, there was nary a contractor seen on sight. Times are different now but I digress). The Rutgers people came up with a matrix for evaluating our work during an outage and the matrix was called “Moving the Metal”. We (the Forman) were literally measured and ranked on how much metal we moved on average.

“Moving the Metal” is a must for a great outage, but it is not the only thing

So, what do I mean “work style”? Well “Moving the Metal” is one work style and the other is what I will call “Close Out”

During the “Moving the Metal” phase you see sparks from torches, hot rods, gouging rigs and grinders. The “pretty blue light” illuminates the space with almost a magical aura. Huge slabs of tired, used and abused metal leave only to be replaced by shiny new. People are moving, rigging, burning, welding, building scaffold. This action is so heady, when it works; it’s like a bizarre ballet with each tutu adorned ballerina hitting their marks to the sounds of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (for your listening pleasure )

Although… it probably looks more like this:

(The Hippos from Fantasia).

During the “Close Out” phase our valorous Valkyries turn into the most austere pedantic DMV clerks you can possibly imagine. “But why?” you cry out “I like the Valkyries, they are so much more sexy then a DMV clerk!” Aha, this is exactly the point of the speech:  it is very hard to see the DMV clerk as sexy as riding horseback through the air and filling Valhalla with the valiant, but trust me they are and more.

“Moving the Metal” and “Close Out” phases are equally essential to have a great outage. A missing gasket, shield, bolt, piece of membrane etc. etc. although small can and will bring the unit down and often the lost revenue cost’s more than a day or two of the outage.

What’s a girl to do?

People don’t instantly change from a screaming Valkyries to a pencil pushing DMV clerk…

Again I say aha, you’re right!

You need to get their attention pretty startlingly as if to throw a bucket of ice water into each any every face. You can’t throw water at people (creates a slip hazard, Safety First!), but you can give them a little shock and awe hence the phraseology. When someone of my gentle demeanor says “Get the F**K Out!” generally people notice that something has changed.

The close out is second only to the planning, in regards to importance of a great outage. It is however a different way of being. Instead of running around and lots of motion as in “Moving the Metal” there is just slow deliberate choreographed steps marching every closer to completion.

It is the Outage Manager’s decision of when to call the switch in work styles. Too early is better than too late always, but like Goldilocks “just right” takes some practice.

The Story     

There I was, just a poor simple little (well not so little) Gorilla, minding my own business and …

Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense.

Well glad you caught that… let me explain. You see I used to refer to myself as a Gorilla in a cage and when there was a problem they would let the Gorilla out and Gorilla would go make fix (not proper English, I know, but we are talking about a gorilla)

Back to the story, I was (as a Gorilla) a turnaround expert for power plants at the time of this story (still am now just less the Gorilla) I joined a plant in need of a turnaround just 30 days before their major outages.

We planned and planned, the plant was not welcoming to say the least, but luckily I was quite a big and scary Gorilla let’s not forget.

The outage went very well except towards the end, it seemed that no one knew how to close out an outage.  It was like Dawn of the Dead. People were walking around with vacant stares and seemingly no direction. I kept going from job to job, Forman to Forman, Lead man to Lead man…nothing!!!! The zombies were winning.


I was getting madder and madder, we had done everything so well but nobody could close out and moreover it seemed that no one had a clue of how to do it. Well this Gorilla, although at times, in certain conditions and zodiac alignments, has the patience of job, was steaming out of the ears.

At the night meeting I lost it

I thanked everybody for all the hard work…Zombies

I said we really need to finish….Zombie groans

You need to follow the entire close out processes we had created….Zombie stares.

The Gorilla had had enough “YOU NEED TO GET THE F**K OUT NOW!!!”  in full Pavarotti.


 (to really get a good visual of what this looked like;

from   “Here I need to take a minute again to describe me for those of you who have yet the pleasure of meeting me. Body: Shrek meets Luca Brasi meets and average sized bear, Face: wise, warm, insightful, angelic some have said. However when mad ….well you know the cartoons when steam comes pouring out of the guys ears, That plus my eyes bulging out of my head like Roger Rabbit and to top it off a loud booming voice that can put Pavarotti to shame”)

All of the sudden the spell was broken, the vacant stares of the Zombies started to slip away, color came back to their faces, the light shown in their eyes once again. Everyone started, slowly at first, about what they needed to do to close out each of their areas. We talked about how the close out was different than the last week had been, It’s all about the details it’s not about speed. Completion matters, closing doors matter, getting everything signed off matters, not how much metal did you move today.

 The reason everyone became a “Zombie” was because they were stuck in “Move the Metal mode” and there was not metal to move.

The speech became known as the “Get the F**k out” speech”. As years went by many contractor owners and management would travel just to be in the room to hear its delivery for themselves. I still get calls from people who know the speech and want to come by and hear it, if they are in the neighborhood at the right time.

These days I’m less Gorilla more Orangutan (you know older, wiser) and because I know there is a switch needed I prepare for it and communicate it much much better so the speech doesn’t have quite the same punch, but it shakes the Zombies up and out (there’s always a few Zombies) even to this day.