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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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.

On-The-Job Training
Like many sectors, the process industry relies heavily on knowledge transferred through on-the-job training (OJT). The expectation is that pairing novices with experts will lead to transfer of appropriate job knowledge. This training approach poses two main issues. First, operators often have difficulty articulating how they know what they know. For this reason, they frequently lean toward telling rather than teaching. For example, a trainee, when inputting a numeric adjustment for a temperature change, asked if that number would suffice. The trainer simply said “yes” rather than communicating why that adjustment, versus another, would give the desired result.

The second issue is that expert operators over time have developed different techniques for doing their work. This may lead to inconsistent information transfer. New operators may learn varying techniques for doing their work and get dissimilar assessments of what’s important as well as diverse views of job expectations. For example, people define “critical” differently. Some say if something out-of-the-ordinary happens and I react to it, it’s not critical — it’s my job. However, some people consider any unexpected change to be a critical event. Others define critical as a problem that occurs without explanation. Defining and training for “critical situations” differently can result in uneven response to events.

This fragmented understanding contributes to decreased operator performance. Further, it can feed into a vicious cycle as newer operators become trainers.

To enhance OJT:
Don’tjust turn the trainee loose with a crew.
Do use structured OJT after initial classroom sessions. For example, one plant has trainers follow novices’ progress to ensure they are learning proper technique and valid knowledge. Trainees should get a manual listing skills and knowledge to master while shadowing actual operators. Prior to each shift these operators should review the list with trainees.
Don’t presume that because people know the job they can teach it.
Do have training materials. This ensures trainers provide consistent coaching. Consider, for instance, providing structured exercises to help the senior operator on the crew convey key knowledge elements. Establish training goals for each shift — teaching novices should be as much a part of shift objectives as meeting production targets.
Don’t leave important information subject to interpretation.
Do ensure tasks are defined. For example, clarify the meaning of “unsafe” and the conditions requiring unit shutdown. Discuss one safe operating limit or production target each day. Cover failure of compliance and its meaning. For example, is not achieving feed-rate targets acceptable if meeting them would require flaring? Spell out the interaction among multiple constraints an operator faces.

Tailored Approach
While operators may come from similar industries and positions, they likely boast varying levels of experience. So, training programs focusing on baseline or rudimentary skills and knowledge may provide little value for some people. For instance, many experienced operators have expressed frustration that they didn’t gain new knowledge during recertification processes because these didn’t build on expertise they had developed. Besides wasting peoples’ time “learning” material they’ve already mastered, one-size-fits-all training programs often fail to teach advanced skills.

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