Plants Grapple with Graying Staff

Retaining expertise and know-how remains a crucial issue.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

Many chemical makers must defuse a demographic time bomb as veteran engineers and operators approach retirement. Companies are pursuing a variety of strategies to bring replacements up to speed and ensure that a vast wealth of knowledge and experience isn’t lost.

For example, for over five years now, Air Products, Allentown, Pa., has been developing procedures for knowledge retention and transfer. So much so that today most of the activity at its corporate university centers on this challenge; the company has developed a range of informal learning techniques such as communities of practice, side-by-side working, after-action reviews and story-telling.

At Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, the focus is very much on creating and sustaining communities of practice in its wider business activities. Mentoring and coaching of new staff by experienced employees also is important. Another strategy the company finds very useful is to let new employees work on case studies of actual process or production challenges. This not only gives less experienced workers the opportunity to develop their own strategies for different scenarios but also allows them to see how their actions compare with the real responses of experienced workers faced with the same situations.

Critical Challenge

BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, faces daunting demographics. In five years, half of the 30,000 staff at the site will be over 50. To prepare for this, for nearly ten years now the company has put demographic management at the heart of its personnel activities.

One example of the actions the company is taking is the use of so-called knowledge relays to retain the experience and insights of operators who are approaching retirement age. Such relays involve bringing an upcoming retiree and that person’s successor together in the presence of an external trainer with the aim of capturing and transferring as much experience as possible— an action that BASF says cuts down on the need for formal training and speeds the integration of the new employee into the post.

“Knowledge relays preserve know-how during job changes. There are often a lot of unspoken expectations towards a new job owner. Moreover, much information is not documented properly. A knowledge relay provides a process engineer with access to this informal knowledge when taking over a new job,” notes BASF spokeswoman Sabrina van der Puetten.

The involved parties first familiarize themselves with the knowledge relay process itself, in particular making sure they have the same expectations about the information to be transferred. The actual “knowledge transfer talk” relies upon what BASF calls a knowledge map that matches the successor’s questions to the experienced engineer’s responses. For a process engineer, such a knowledge map not only covers “who,” “what” and “how to do” questions but also other insights gathered over time by the experienced engineer, such as “years ago at a foreign site when all of a sudden the regulations changed, we quickly had to...”.

“This approach shortens the training time for a new job and helps the new job owner to adapt to his role more quickly. It is a very individual approach which is carried out in a confidential setting. We constantly measure how predecessor and successor judge the benefit of this approach. Nearly all participants report increased effectiveness and confirm that it is well worth it,” says van der Puetten.

BASF also has established a learning center at Ludwigshafen. Here, young process engineers work with experienced supervisors to create individual learning packages that are fine-tuned annually. Learning consultation meetings between the process engineer and supervisor are used to discuss the employee’s learning style, check learning and education objectives, and define learning strategies. This then enables the young process engineer to focus on how best to match the training needed with the person’s current job. BASF has a variety of communities where process engineers can discuss technical challenges and problems that they face with experienced engineers from the company’s operations worldwide.

At a broader level, since 2009 the company has been running an initiative called “Optimizing Production in Antwerp and Ludwigshafen into the 21st Century” (Opal 21). The project aims to achieve operational excellence at all production facilities in these two, large, integrated sites. Central to this is the need to improve knowledge management and transfer.

Part of Opal 21 involves installing plant trainers at each facility on the site. Their job is to create on a continuing basis learning projects that ensure capture and transfer of important knowledge within each facility and the wider complex (Figure 1). “The plant trainers are working successfully in many plants now and we also offer training and guidelines for process managers so that best practices can be exchanged via role-specific communities,” comments van der Puetten.

The skills and knowledge gleaned at the existing Opal 21 sites now are being leveraged to support and monitor the introduction of production systems used in Antwerp and Ludwigshafen at other BASF sites around the world.

Story-Telling Technique

Collaborative efforts also are attempting to address the problem. Indeed, the need both to capture knowledge from the upcoming wave of retirees and to develop ways of passing it on was a major driver for 2007 establishment of the Center for Operator Performance (COP), Dayton, Ohio, which brings together operating companies, vendors and academia.

One of the organization’s most recent projects has involved a tie-up with cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, author of “Sources of Power” and an expert in decision-making.

Klein, in 2014, founded ShadowBox to promote his ShadowBox training technique. This is a form of story-telling that involves packaging as training exercises various scenarios based on actual situations. A trainee can go through these exercises unassisted and then, when finished, compare his or her responses with those of experienced staff. For operator training, seasoned operators develop these scenarios.

The technique is aimed at industries that require a mastery of implied, invisible knowledge that isn’t easily captured in manuals or procedural checklists; customers include petrochemicals companies, the military and police.

Within each scenario, a trainee encounters realistic decision points, generated with the help of user-company experts. These decision points require the trainee to provide rankings and the rationale for them, tapping into the trainee’s cognitive assessment of the situation. The trainee then sees the rankings of a panel of experts at the company involved, and can explore the thinking of the experts by reading in-depth expert feedback for each ranking. After each scenario, the trainee reflects on how his or her rankings and rationale differed from those of the experts involved — a process designed to foster the development of insights that will aid in evolution of the person’s thinking.

The COP already has completed a project study using plant-specific scenarios. These have demonstrated that the ShadowBox method can serve as an effective tool for training inexperienced operators and capturing tacit knowledge through the involvement of experienced operators.

The study clearly pointed up differences between seasoned and less experienced operators. The COP currently is conducting a project to determine if generalized scenarios addressing core skills in analysis and troubleshooting can be developed. The hope is that they might serve as an effective, broad-based tool across plant sites or even companies within an industry to speed development of those critical skills in less experienced operators.

“In studying the story-telling concept and ShadowBox, in particular, the COP has found that the involvement of the experienced operators in the scenario development is indeed an effective means of capturing the tacit knowledge that resides within them,” notes Thomas Kindervater, solution support manager, COP.

Interestingly, an earlier COP study looked at how best to identify the experienced operators most suitable for developing the scenarios needed. This project determined that certain characteristics of expertise are common among operators while other characteristics reflect the nature of the process or the degree of automation. “The practical side is that if you want operators to be experts, you need to know what characteristics to develop so they can become experts,” he explains.

The COP also is pressing ahead with development of a semantic procedure analyzer (SPA), a software tool that can learn and adapt over time. The idea here is to capture the knowledge of experienced operators in a way that makes updating and modifying existing procedures easier — both for these veterans and for newer, less experienced staff.

The COP has defined an integrated solution for linking the SPA prototype to a relational database and now is awaiting the development of an integrated tool for user testing (see: “Bring Your Procedures into the 21st Century”). The goal is to enable an operating company to feed its current set of procedures into the tool for modularization — with parsed modules going directly into the relational database once they have been okayed by a subject matter expert and then exported from the relational database as needed to update existing or create new procedures.

In a more general comment, Kindervater says the COP has seen evidence that younger operators respond differently to human/machine-interface (HMI) conventions than staff with 20 or more years of experience. It appears that different approaches to navigation, information call-up and display than those industry now commonly uses may better suit the younger workforce. This, in turn, creates a new challenge in graphic display design when trying to attain maximum performance in an operator HMI used by a workforce spanning a wide age range.

The COP also has found that experienced operators want less information on graphics than inexperienced operators do. “This finding has come out of the studies we have conducted on designing display graphics and highlights the challenge in designing graphics that are effective for all age groups and experience levels,” he concludes.


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at sottewell@putman.net.

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