The Bricmont Method

When I started this blog site, I was thinking about writing this.  I usually do not use names, but this needs to be memorialized.  In 1996, I came to the Pittsburgh area and became a “steeler.”  Bricmont was an engineering company that designed furnaces for the steel industry to reheat steel.  I delayed writing this because I was the last of those who knew the Bricmont Method, and I was often called back to teach classes.  But with others taking over who are not terribly interested in actually teaching, I feel I must write this to preserve the Bricmont Method.

Bricmont had started out with the company owner providing technical services.  He added another engineer as the workload expanded, and then he added a metallurgist / metallurgical engineer to enhance the technical services.  This second employee, and longest serving employee, became a good friend and mentor to me.  But before I came along, they were asked to teach the steel mill operators and maintainers how a furnace works and how a furnace could be operated better and more efficiently.  The steel mill managers wanted to reduce fuel usage.

NOTE:  Although engineers are often asked to teach what they know, this is not usually a good idea, and Mr. Bricmont, the owner realized this quickly.  The engineers knew a lot, but as a maintenance foreman said when an engineer told him that something was common sense, “Young man, you have no idea how much of your education was required for that to be common sense to you!!!!”  In other words, engineers are usually off in their science world and out of touch with “other people.”

Thus, the course was developed similar to how Bob Mager designed the Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI) system.  You start with the foundational building blocks and you build up.

Course Structure

To teach someone how to operate a combustion furnace, you need to teach them the best method of combustion, but then, what is combustion?  But if combustion is mixing fuel and air, what are fuel and air?  But, if we start with nitrogen, oxygen, and some type of fuel that might be different at each steel mill, why are we even doing this?

Thus, the first part of the lecture is the motivational message, but never let the class (and usually never let the instructor) know that is what you are doing.  In short, if you use the least amount of fuel today to make the most steel product that the furnace can handle today, you will save fuel, save the company money, have less environmental impacts, and the entire world will have more fuel … tomorrow.  That last bit was the important thing in the 1970s with fuel shortages and lines at the gas pumps.  The other points evolved as they became the focus.  I have taught classes after a furnace exploded – a completely different mindset.

Thus, before you ever talk about a burner, the device that produces a flame, you have convinced the class that saving fuel is important, you have introduced what the fire triangle is (and then cautioned against using the word “fire” beyond that point – since fire has a negative connotation), you have demonstrated on a working model what combustion is including fuel and pure oxygen combustion – just for a big light show and burning steel wool in oxygen just for a bit of sparkle, and then you have discussed in detail the different ways to control combustion and which is best for the steel product, the environment, the furnace structure, the operator’s safety, and the company’s profit margin (although this is only implied as “efficiency” since the common operator only cares about his paycheck and never the boss’).

Notice that there was technology taught, but there was motivational speaking involved and psychology.  The method also used asking the class to produce as many of the answers as possible.  In the general instructions before this lesson, you ask about the background, talking to each trainee.  If the class is a bunch of green folks (green meaning no experience at all)…  My least experienced class had a woman who had operated a forklift at corn flake cereal factory as being the only person in the class with “industrial experience,” but within a week, I had them operating a furnace and heating steel that would become structural “I-beams.”  (An I-beam is only one structural shape among many that people call “I-beams.”  Usually, you are looking at a wide flanged beam when you call it that.)

But, within their knowledge, they might know that air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other stuff, and that mostly argon.  As for the carbon dioxide, less than 0.03 to 0.04%, or about 300-400 parts per million.  It is increasing slowly, but industry is a small part of that compared to cutting down trees and the population increase, proliferation of automobiles, etc.  But if we can teach people how to use less fuel, they are emitting less carbon dioxide, and eliminating nitrogen oxides (NOx) and partially burned fuel (carbon monoxide) and unburned fuel (such things as methane and such).

That seems like a lot to expect from a common worker, but someone will know bits and pieces and the instructor fills in the gaps.  And once the foundation is taught, you can build on it.

Bob Mager, in CRI, designed self-paced instruction in the same manner, not allowing the trainee to proceed until they proved mastery of the foundation, with each subsequent skill and knowledge became foundational for the next step.  Yes, I had completed the CRI courses long before going to Bricmont.  What amazed me was that their course structure was exactly like how the pioneers of industrial course design did it.  And Bricmont did it by trial and error in record time, with having no one on staff who had been taught the techniques.

Real World Examples

Since engineers think heavy science topics are “common sense,” Bricmont used things like hair dryers and heat lamps and even a toy radiometer to explain heat transfer.  Sure, the definitions for radiation heat transfer, convection heat transfer, and conduction heat transfer are easily taught.  But showing how the red light from the heat lamp shines against your hand is better.  Then, like a dummy (but before the bulb gets too hot), you touch the bulb.  That gets a laugh.  Then, you point the heat lamp to the floor and hold your hand above the heat lamp, behind, but above, the glow of the lamp.  When you ask why your hand is getting hot, where did the heat come from and how did it get there?  That connects with the class better than simply telling them.

Then you pull out the toy radiometer and ask them how it works.  You will be amazed that they just might get it right.

I know.  The video is a tease and if you do not know how one works, please comment and I will tell you what types of heat transfer are going on and how it works.  Since it is a child’s toy, it is not that hard.  And that is the point.  Bricmont even got a cartoonist (an old steel worker who liked to draw cartoons) on board and he created some hilarious illustrations.  I was working there when the cartoonist passed away and about half the company went to the funeral.

So, we have an industry model style organization done by trial and error.  We have real life illustrations done the same way.  But how can you keep the rogue engineer that thinks his way is better from ruining all the hard work?

You script everything.

You write the instructor’s manual, and the engineer follows a script – or else – or else he goes back to his desk job or out the front door.

Yes, I did not like this part, but the owner realized that most engineers want to impress people with their knowledge, and they got off script, often rambling.  They forget that the ultimate goal is for the trainee to learn something – rather than be impressed that you know more stuff.  The script may make the lecture look like a puppet on a string, but it was consistent from one steel mill to the next.  But, yes, at one steel mill in Texas, I had a trainee tell me during a class break about a new instructor’s first lecture, “You are the best puppeteer I have ever seen.  I barely saw the strings moving.”  Hey, the instructor was not even an engineer.  He was our audio/visual guy that did voice over for computer-based training.  He knew what to say, so why not?  He operated the demonstration equipment under my guidance and gave me a chance to rest my vocal chords for an hour or two each day.

But what about when someone got off script or said something that was downright wrong and possibly dangerous?  You know, they might blow up the furnace and their best friend at the same time?

Planned Interruptions

Mr. Bricmont had a fiery temper, and everything had to be perfect or the owner would, as the saying goes, “rip you a new hole.”  They shortened the technique to his infamous “rips.”  When this happened in front of the class, the instructor was suddenly an idiot and never to be trusted.  At this point, whatever the instructor had already said became suspect, tainting the entire program.

Thus, there had to be a technique built into the script for people to interrupt each other.  Thus, when an error had to be corrected by another instructor (please, never the company owner) it seemed like the interplay between instructors, schtick, if you will.  A different way of saying it, rather than a course correction that might lead the class into an unsafe condition.

I would be teaching them that one standard cubic foot of natural gas mixes with ten standard cubic feet of air to combust, making 1,000 BTUs of heat.  Then, the other instructor would step forward and admonish me for using units that the class might not understand.  Does the ordinary person on the street know what a standard cubic foot is?  Come on, now!  They have to know these things!  Then, the other instructor explains what a cubic foot is, holding up a box that just happens to be almost exactly one cubic foot, one foot by one foot by one foot.  Then a standard cubic foot must be at atmospheric pressure, explaining that, and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  And if we had about ten of these boxes full of air at standard conditions, they would weigh about three quarters of a pound.  After explaining that a BTU, British Thermal Unit, is the heat required to raise one pound of water, one degree Fahrenheit, and that a pound of water is roughly one pint, then he let’s me continue with the lecture – sometimes with me throwing a barb back at him/her as they walk away.

Often, the interruptions have a little humor in it.  I have even heard a trainee say, “Oh know, here it comes again!”  That is much better than hearing, “Oh know, the training manager is about to kick the instructor in the backside for saying something stupid again!!”  Much better.

As for the humor, once my mentor knew that I understood how the script worked, he allowed me to venture off script to tell a few jokes, especially if they related to the topic.

And all those planned interruptions were in the Script and rehearsed.  There was a keyword used so that the other instructor had just a few seconds to say, “Yeah, wait a minute here!” after the keyword was spoken.  And I doubt if the class ever knew.  In one class, I had my boss as my assistant, and I destroyed protocol. I said the keyword three times and he sat, half asleep, in the back of the classroom.  I then stopped for about fifteen seconds of dead quiet.  Then I yelled, “Hey, boss, I just said BTU three times!!”  That’s when one trainee sang, “Oh, no.  Someone forgot when to start talking.  He might be in trou … ble.”  Then another said, “But since he’s the boss, who is going to get fired?!”  The boss later apologized during the next break.

Conclusions

The organization for each bit of knowledge is built upon a strong foundation and then each new bit is laid upon the previous bits.  Even when it becomes tedious, since you never know how little the class may know ahead of time – always a good review.

The engineers use a script that includes real world examples, something relatable with the class.  And when you go to foreign countries, not everyone owns a car, nor have they filled their tires with air.

Planned interruptions can be used for one instructor to correct another instructor in a way that does not ruin that instructor’s credibility with the class.  The class also hears a different voice, even when not correcting.  And humor is also important.

All these points were learned by trial and error, by people who were making money for the service provided.  Yet, the important thing was that people learned what was being presented.

I was called by my old friend “the best instructor the company ever had.”  Maybe he said that to all the previous instructors, but then, I had been taught those techniques by instruction development experts long before, and I was used to absorbing new industrial techniques rapidly.  It became natural to me once I understood how the pieces were placed together and why.

But then, when the company expanded to such things as galvanizing lines, heat treating lines and aluminum melters, I knew how to organize the information and expand the company expertise in teaching new topics that we had never dealt with before, without calling in subject matter experts.  Really, that is what made the latter years more fun.

The Bricmont Method is not really being used fully anymore.  The company was sold and almost all the employees laid off over the years.  Although an instructional designer might yawn over this post, I did not want the hard work to be lost, the work that made Bricmont a “training company” for many years before becoming a design and build company.

I developed more “war stories” over twenty years from teaching people from five continents (only going to three of them).  The company had work in South America, but no training jobs while I worked there.  As one boss of mine said, the operators that we were teaching would become, if they were not already, the expert on their furnaces, but having experience around the world, we were “furnace experts.”

What Bricmont taught, for the most part, was what the steel company management already new.  But there is a funny thing between management and the hourly workers.  They may know most of what I taught, but the hourly workers often listened to me while they thought their boss to be an idiot.  The smart bosses were those that realized that it did not matter who said it, as long as their operations improved, and they spent less time fixing the furnace.

I tip my hat to all who went before me, the ones that blazed the trail that I followed.

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