Build Operator Expertise Faster

Following a few do’s and don’ts can significantly speed learning.

By David A. Strobhar, Beville Engineering, and Danyele Harris-Thompson,

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Most process plants are struggling with the dual challenges of increased requirements for safe and efficient operation and expected retirement of a large portion of the workforce. Sites likely will lose substantial expert knowledge at a time when it’s of greatest need. This will ratchet up pressure to more quickly develop expertise in newer operators.

Traditionally, operators have built expertise on a particular unit by experiencing numerous events. Such encounters result in a very accurate mental model for predicting what will occur in a certain situation and what actions will be needed to ensure safe operation. However, as a consequence of improved plant reliability and better automation, operators now experience events much less frequently. This makes it increasingly difficult to quickly develop expertise to fill the void created by retirements. Many plants are turning to simulators as the answer to addressing gaps. However, simulators alone won’t guarantee development of the range of skills expert operators possess — especially those skills needed for problem detection, analysis of events and decision-making.

The Center for Operator Performance, which is collaborative effort of operating companies (BP, Chevron, Flint Hills Resources, Marathon, NOVA Chemicals and Suncor Energy), control system vendors (ABB and Emerson Process Management) and academia (Wright State University), is conducting research to identify how to speed acquisition of expertise and improve operator performance. An initial pilot study examined control of two different process units and a pipeline. Here, we summarize some key findings from that work.

Developing Expertise

Many people believe that memorizing large amounts of factual information and principles builds expertise. While technical understanding is key to operator performance, knowledge not acquired through experience — real or simulated — may not contribute to advanced learning or performance. People better grasp new information in context of meaningful activities rather than as an abstract set of facts.

[Related: Retirement Casts a Long Shadow]

Acquiring knowledge isn’t enough, though. Novices also must engage in deliberate practice applying that knowledge, recognizing key information, setting goals and executing actions. For example, one operating company member of the Center uses decision-making exercises that present operators with cues to an unknown problem to let them practice recognizing a problem, analyzing its causes and generating a solution (instead of just telling them the problem and best solution).

Here are some do’s and don’ts for developing operator expertise:

Don’t just give large amounts of factual information or rules. A data dump from an expert will be of little value.
Do create opportunities to learn information as it occurs in real situations. Present console operators with a list of alarms or screen shots of what occurred during an upset and ask them what they think is happening. Coaches with expert technical knowledge then can help them better interpret what they see.
Don’t just expose novice operators to a variety of generic circumstances. Learning by osmosis is very unreliable.
Do support practice recognizing cues, expectancies, goals and actions. Expert mental models come from doing not reading. Develop a list of scenarios, such as major changes in feed composition/rate or product slates, that novices should experience while on the console. Prior to execution of each task, have trainees list what they would expect to see, what could go wrong, and what the first indication of a problem would be. Discuss the list and ensure it’s correct prior to task execution.

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