Capturing and Transferring Plant Operator Expertise

As businesses in the West grapple with the demographic challenge of losing experienced employees to retirement, companies are taking various approaches to capturing and transferring this expertise to their incoming personnel.

Emerson's Mark Nixon


Plants-Grapple-with-GrayingEmerson’s Mark Nixon pointed me to a great Chemical Processing article, Plants Grapple with Graying Staff. Mark has led many of the advancements in the DeltaV distributed control system technology program.

He has also been a member and supported the research activities of the Center for Operator Performance (COP). One of COP’s major areas of human factors research is training. Some of the key questions and issues they are looking at include:

  • How does qualifying for several jobs impact skill level? How often is refresher needed?
  • In quantifiable measures, how much improvement does a dynamic simulator make in operator performance? How does fidelity impact?
  • Can operators be taught to be critical thinkers?
  • What is the training frequency for critical skills?
  • What is the optimal training curriculum?
  • Can expert teams be taught?
  • How much faster can an operator who already knows one job learn another?
  • What is most effective in terms of cross training dedicated console operators versus those that rotate to the field?

You can see quite a list of COP research projects completed, in progress and proposed. Ones specifically around training include Effectiveness of Scenario-Based Training, ShadowBox Training and Training Methods.

In the Chemical Processing article, the author highlights the ShadowBox technique. It 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.

This is the knowledge that is not:

…easily captured in manuals or procedural checklists; customers include petrochemicals companies, the military and police.

In a 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 article also describes the Center for Operator Performance’s work with semantic procedure analyzers (SPA) to capture operator knowledge and modify existing procedures more easily.

Read the article for more on some of the best practices shared by Air Products, Dow AgroSciences and BASF to facilitate this knowledge capture and transfer process. For more on the Center for Operator Performance consortium of researchers, suppliers, and end users to improve the Health, Safety, and Environmental effectiveness of process plant operators, contact the COP team.

You can also connect and interact with other plant automation experts in the DeltaV and Ovation groups in the Emerson Exchange 365 community.

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