Retirement Casts a Long Shadow

Companies focus on retaining and disseminating expertise of veteran engineers.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The wave of forthcoming retirements was a major driver for establishing the Center for Operator Performance (COP) in 2007. "Initially none of us knew what knowledge management was all about, but we chose to go down the procedures route because we felt it would be easier to get a direction," explains David A. Strobhar, chief human factors engineer at Beville Engineering in Dayton, Ohio, and a guiding light behind the Dayton-based center. "So that's why we have been working on a semantic procedure analyzer (SPA)," he adds.

[Related: Leadership Focus Podcast: Improving Operator Performance]

Much of the development work for the SPA has come from COP research into modularizing emergency procedures. This pointed up the need to make updating and modifying existing procedures easier. It also found that about 80% of the material in procedures is duplication. "This means that the amount of information that really needs to be updated/current is only around 20% of the total volume of the procedures. For example, a unit that has 100 pages of procedures may really only have 20 pages of unique information. Put those 20 pages in a database that can be accessed by each procedure that needs the procedure step(s) and the update processing just became significantly easier," says Strobhar.

To highlight the importance of this, he cites the case of a COP member company that found variations that shouldn't exist in certain procedures. One, for example, required four steps to shut down a heater while another called for five. "Which one is accurate? From a legal standpoint you now have inconsistencies. If one step in a procedure has been changed, that step should be changed everywhere… there are huge corporate risk implications if this isn't done."

The SPA software also has the capability to learn to adapt over time so that fewer corrections need to be made.

The final version of the software will be available online to COP member companies by the end of the year, he hopes.

"Once we have that complete, we will move into our next steps in knowledge management, which will potentially use the storytelling technique. Gary Klein, author of 'Sources of Power' and an expert in decision-making, says the key to learning is from real-life lessons and stories. They are more important than retelling the simple physics behind why a certain decision was taken. I see this as a real potential area of use. Creating a protocol for capturing this event knowledge will be a key area," Strobhar concludes.

ottewell.jpgSeán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at

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