So you really didn't touch the settings at all, huh? Well, this print-out from my secret backup says otherwise

Cultures clash when a combustion turbine goes K-pop

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On Call Friday has rolled around once more, bookending a sunny week in the UK and promising a weekend free of actual work. Unless, of course, you are one of the unfortunates cursed to be On Call.

Today's story takes us around the world and back to the 1990s in the company of a Register reader that the ever-creative Regorandomiser has named "Barbara", for that is not her real name.

Barbara was a fresh-faced engineer for a multinational that we shall call "Powerzilla".

"We were doing combustion turbine installs for the Korean government that was building new cities around Seoul to relieve overcrowding," she recalled.

Each of the new cities required a power station, and Powerzilla had the contract for two of them. It was Barbara's first overseas assignment. It would also be her last.

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"We had gotten a couple of the units to the point that we were doing reliability runs in preparation to turn them over to the local utility," she told us. A reliability run meant running the unit at full load, continuously, for five days.

All was going well until a few days into one of the runs when Barbara arrived at site to find a unit had tripped offline. Naturally, it was winter and of course it was freezing, but still she trudged out to discover what had befallen the device.

A look at the alarm list and the operator event review (referred to by Barbara as the "tattle-tell") spat out by the dot-matrix printer showed the cause. Hours before any Powerzilla staff had turned up, somebody had fiddled with a temperature setting which caused the unit to trip shortly afterwards.

It was, said Barbara, "no big deal, just some operator mucking about, and the trip didn't count against the run."

Problem solved, the team got back to work. But sure enough, a few days later a unit tripped once again and required Barbara to be called out early to deal with it.

Once more she trudged out to get the print-out from the dot-matrix but... it wasn't there.

Surrounded by an entourage of staff from the energy utility, she tried to explain how important the alarm list was in diagnosing the cause of the trip, but all she received were shaking heads and looks of incomprehension.

"I should mention at this point," she said, "that everyone I met in Korea understood and spoke at least a modicum of English (unlike this stupid American who can barely speak their own native language), but it was amazing how fast they would forget English when convenient."

The blank looks continued as the staffers drifted away. After all, nothing was going wrong at that moment. There was just an American complaining about a missing alarm list.

At this point Barbara revealed a bit of cunning. She'd hidden a backup printer with another unit that was still under construction and a copy of the alarm list was sitting smugly atop it. A theatrical tear of the paper later and she had her explanation – "another operator mucking about with the settings, causing the trip."

As she strode back to the offices, clutching the paperwork, she was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of South Korean operators and managers, all of whom had suddenly rediscovered the ability to converse in English. The concerned staffers wondered where the print-out had come from and what was on it.

After all, the operators had insisted there had been no fiddling with the settings and their managers had backed them up.

"I had caught them in a bald-faced lie, making them lose face," Barbara recalled. While possibly a little hard for some to understand, the concept of saving face is core to many cultures to the point of hiding the tattle-tell alarm list in order to avoid embarrassment and preserve reputation.

While Barbara's management had a field day with the information and botched attempt at a cover-up, she became "Bad Miss Barb" for not allowing the backup alarm list to be quietly disposed of, not telling anyone about the other printer and, worst of all, letting the on-site crew get caught in a lie.

"In the end," she remembered, "it was all good. We had no more issues with settings being changed by them, and all the units got successfully commissioned and turned over."

Sadly though, "no good deed goes unpunished," she sighed. Upon her return to the US, she was hauled over the carpet for "making changes to the control system willy-nilly and without approval of the controls group".

She was not allowed to show the evidence that she had approval from local management, nor that the changes were aimed at protecting the units.

Later, when asked to go out to another country for another job, she demurred or "told them to pound salt", as she put it (we can imagine fruitier language being deployed).

"Amazingly, I wasn't fired."

Ever managed to cause mortal offence when you were just trying to help? Or caught a customer in a whopper of lie and naively chose the path of truth? You have? Send an email to the On Call corner and tell all. ®

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