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10 myths about work procedures

Are any of these rationales getting in the way of consistent, procedure-based excellence at your facility?

By Jack R. Nicholas, Jr., P.E., CMRP, CRL, IAM Certified

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There are many myths concerning procedures, many of which are raised because of ignorance, failure to recognize human frailty, or worse, laziness. Procedures are boring! They take significant concentration and skill to produce. Few organizations believe they have personnel with the capabilities needed, so outside contractors are hired in many cases to develop them. This results in lack of buy-in to becoming a procedure-based organization.

For over 40 years I have encountered many who reject the idea that written up-to-date procedures are needed or apply to their enterprise. This article addresses 10 of the myths circulating today in industry, counters each of them with sound reasons why they are false and makes the case for any organization embracing procedures.

Myth #1: Procedures developed at the beginning of asset life cycle can last throughout it.

It is not unusual for organizations to have written procedures for operations and maintenance developed by commissioning contractors, training “experts” from internal organizations, original suppliers of machinery and equipment, and/or contractors that install physical assets.

Once contractors and trainers leave, there is no provision for further refinement of what has been developed at the very beginning of an asset lifecycle. This is either an oversight or a mistaken belief that procedures, once done, are useful forever. Failure to make changes needed to stay competitive and relevant results in premature demise of many organizations for a variety of reasons including but not limited to:

  • Inability to retain talented employees who are frustrated by rejection of changes they recommend and move on;
  • Loss of profitability, market share and customers who need suppliers who can institute changes to meet their needs;
  • Mismatch between revised policies and plans and the processes and procedures needed to carry them out.

Myth #2: Skilled personnel don’t need procedures.

Baby Boomer craftspersons (born 1946-'64), who began to retire in larger numbers about 2011 from utilities, manufacturing plants, and related industries, take justifiable pride in their skills. Later generations are about to replace those that have the resources (annuities, pension income, etc.) to live comfortably without a regular paycheck.

However the later generations have some disadvantages when it comes to having learned their trades. “Shop” classes were systematically eliminated from middle and high schools during their time in life. Apprentice programs at most companies were also eliminated. During this period machinery also became more complex and sophisticated, and there are not enough people coming into the workforce to replace the Baby Boomers who are beginning to exit  in significant numbers.

So what’s the best way to transfer hard learned lessons of operations and maintenance and ensure its permanence until a better way forward is found? Process and procedure focus involves learning from experience, and what people call "experience" results in naturally adding steps throughout a particular task so that it goes as planned. So, steps in any supporting procedures would become more detailed as lessons of experience are acquired and written down. In addition, even when experienced workers replace each other they have learned it’s better to use the latest written procedure to carry out tasks than to rely on experience gained in another job even in the same organization.

Myth #3: Some jobs are too complex for procedures.

Complex jobs require complex procedures. Failure to provide them can lead to disaster and is usually a sign of ignorance of design defects, laziness, lack of appreciation of the complexities on the part of management, or inadequate provision of needed resources to produce and maintain procedures throughout asset lifecycle.

For example, on nuclear powered submarines, the procedures are all there, and in as much complexity as needed to train personnel on performing routine tasks with precision. Constant study, drilling and training, both ashore and on board the ship, makes it possible for personnel to learn and perform their tasks without having to refer to written materials all the time. The procedures, while very precise, allow for use of judgment, experience and common sense when things don’t go routinely.

Some of these non-routine situations may prompt adding  notes to procedures so that the details of unusual experiences can be passed on to successors. There are several factors here that should be understood and make this necessary:

  • The average age of U.S. Navy nuclear submarine crews, including all the officers on board is around 22 years.
  • The normal tour length for all members of the crew of a nuclear submarine is about 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 years.
  • On any given deployment about one-quarter of the crew, including the officers, are on their initial qualifying tours of duty.

Step-by-step and double-check repair requirements put in place in the  aftermath of accidental sinking of two U.S. Navy nuclear powered submarines in the 1960s have been responsible for 48+ years operations without even coming close to losing a U.S. nuclear submarine due to failure in systems needed for control in emergency situations.

Myth #4: Procedures threaten the jobs of high paid personnel and/or the company’s future survival.

Often the claim is made that, “If I write down how my job is done, management can easily replace me with a lower paid employee.” Other words have been substituted for the last word in that statement, but the sentiment is clear, mostly ill conceived and untrue.

One good example of procedures playing an important role in a company’s future occurred in a steel plant in Canada in the early 1990s. A tough-minded maintenance manager, due to his people skills and attention to key issues, had been transferred to one of the plant's hot mills to solve a production bottleneck. At the beginning of his tenure, the mill, which had been operating for 12 years, was producing at only 60% of its nominal design (4 million tons per year) throughput. Unscheduled outages were the norm and it took a long time after each downturn to bring the mill back to its previous level of production. An assessment team from a Japanese steel company described it as the “oldest new mill they had even seen.”

The new maintenance manager initiated RCM analysis on major systems in the hot mill. This defined what maintenance was to be performed and what procedures  needed to be added, modified or eliminated. Fortunately the staff, which had lost four to five layers of supervisory personnel in recent cutbacks, had been left with a treasure trove of procedures these supervisors had written on precision repairs and preventive routines for assets. The downside is that those remaining had to learn how to create and/or rewrite procedures that previously had been developed by those who had  left. This was required to implement the RCM analysis findings and make the changes permanent.

In addition, a comprehensive predictive maintenance (PdM) program was started to replace one proven by an outside audit team to be completely ineffective. Major elements of the new PdM program were requirements for post-maintenance testing to be performed after major repairs or overhauls and acceptance testing for all new or modified assets. These requirements had to be formalized as required steps in all applicable procedures.

As members of the organization began to understand how to support the processes, communications stovepipes disappeared and proactive activities began to evolve. The new maintenance manager insisted that processes and procedures be followed and supported and did his part by ensuring resources were provided, guidance issued as needed, impediments removed and constraints added or deleted from processes everyone helped develop.

By changing the maintenance strategy to one that was RCM-based and implementing it through revised processes and detailed procedures, the hot mill was able within five years to raise the throughput to 5 million tons annually (125% of nominal design). In addition, the company was able to decommission a different 50-year-old hot mill that had become increasingly costly to maintain and that was falling behind newer mills in quality of its output.

Myth #5: Procedures aren’t needed for those who receive good on-the-job training.

An excellent example also involves the operation of a steel plant hot rolling mill. An operator who controlled the overall process from the “pulpit” would take over from the previous shift operator and immediately change the lineup of descale pumps to make sure that all were running. Only two of three installed pumps were required to be online, according to operating instructions, because only one fully functioning pump was needed to perform scale removal vital to ensuring first-quality hot strip products. The second pump provided a 100% backup in case one pump failed.

The reasoning of the operator wanting to have all three online was to have added assurance that if one of the pumps failed, there would still be two more immediately available to perform the scale removal process. This added assurance was costly in terms of excess power consumed by the third 1000HP motor-pump combination, and the added wear and tear on the assets operating for more hours than actually needed.

Not only was the operator violating procedure to avoid the perceived embarrassment of producing second quality product, but there was another incentive. The operator’s bonus was based on quantity of first quality product produced on the operator’s shift. Energy cost and asset wear and tear were not factors considered in the bonus. So, to assure the compensation, the operator expended many times the value of the bonus in avoidable costs and lost profits to the company. By passing on a personalized oral instruction to a trainee, the instructing operator risked perpetuating non-compliance with operating procedures that had been directed by management for all shift operators. It’s far easier to require compliance when the procedure is written, up-to-date and used in on-the-job training.

Myth #6: Procedures relieve users of accountability.

Determining accountability when something goes wrong in carrying out a task is often central to investigating a casualty involving an asset. This is a problem in organizations that foster a “blame” mentality.

An investigation for “procedure not followed” and an equipment failure are different. If a piece of equipment fails, then you would analyze why the equipment failed. You dig into the details of that piece of equipment. If a person makes a mistake (i.e., doesn't follow a procedure) you shouldn’t be trying to analyze why the person failed – what you need to do is look at why the process failed, and the question you want to answer is, “How was the person actually performing the task?” The person involved will cooperate in improving the process and/or procedure if a no-fault or blameless attitude exists.

You don't want to fix just that one person. You would like to address everyone – all of the people who in the future will have to carry out the task specified in the procedure that didn’t go as expected. If you have defined your work process clearly and everyone has agreed that it’s the correct work process, it is that work process and procedure that are absolutely establishing accountability. It's not that it erodes accountability – it establishes accountability.

Myth #7: Procedures are no good in an emergency.

Those who believe that procedures can’t be written for every detail that might occur during an emergency are right! No one can anticipate all risks, nor do they have to do so. However, when a crisis occurs, procedures to mitigate and control commonly encountered situations are invaluable.

The more realistic the exercise and the more detailed its critique by observers, the better the outcome when a similar, real event occurs. Members of military organizations, fire fighters, law enforcement persons, airliner crews, cruise ship crew members and passengers, health care professionals engaged in emergency services, offshore oil platform personnel and many others have procedures and checklists readily at hand to help cope with typical emergencies likely to be experienced should something go wrong. By drilling on the likely emergencies in simulators or on the actual sites, personnel become familiar with the content of their emergency procedures.

Even the words used to communicate the type of emergency and actions to take can be important to the eventual outcome. Standard phases, announcements and orders should be highlighted in written emergency procedures and their use practiced in drills. This makes it easier for the human brain to pick out vital messages transmitted amid the chaos, noise and other features that typically accompany a crisis situation.

Myth #8: Procedures are no good for people who can’t read.

Workers in many parts of the world must learn tasks associated with their jobs largely by memorizing oral instruction received on the job or in a classroom – because they can’t read. These workers are no less intelligent than workers who can read. They simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn to read or only have access to written material in a language they haven’t been taught or learned through exposure to people who speak and write in a language foreign to them.

There are ways to provide instructions through images, however. These may be in still or video formats, the latter accompanied by oral narration in the local dialect in many cases. Other organizations needing more complex procedures might use video placed on tablet computers or smartphones to provide needed repair and operating instructions narrated in the language of the user.

With modern digital  processing and imaging capabilities in cameras, smartphones, and tablet computers these days it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize  written procedures using pictures and symbols (arrows, “X’s,” warning triangles with exclamation marks in them, “smiley” and grimacing faces indicating what and what not to do, etc,.) that allow semi-literate and illiterate people speaking (but not reading) any language, once they learn required skills (such as use of hand tools), to carry out cartoon or image-based procedures successfully.

Myth #9: Procedures require too much bureaucracy to be affordable.

Readily available policy, process, plans, and procedures (PPPP) management software operated on commercial operating systems is inexpensive and is becoming widely used and more versatile. These programs greatly ease bureaucratic burdens, and do far more than provide an alternative to word processing software–they can be used for almost any sized business, organization or other entity in fields such as medicine, government, manufacturing, provision of services, and transportation (see sidebar).

Having one key person assigned a part-time collateral duty as PPPP administrator for small and medium-sized organizations and up to full time for larger ones is common. That person not only can keep track of processes and procedures, but also can instruct those needing assistance beyond what the management software provides.

Myth #10: Procedures stifle creativity of users.

In 2014 an expanding organization with mostly young, talented staff members that provides many products and services internationally began developing processes and procedures in order to help recently promoted and new members quickly learn their jobs. They feared at the beginning that written processes and procedures would stifle their creativity and innovation. What they found, however, was that the software tools provided for easily creating and updating documents provided a more effective means of communications with all team members than oral methods. It actually enhanced their ability to innovate and create new, profit making products and services and make continuous improvements when changes were proposed by anyone, adopted by the team and documented as the new way of doing things. PPPP management enthusiasts know that creativity of their workers is not impeded, but enhanced by efficiently managed well written documents!

In conclusion

There are many more myths used by managers to avoid requiring procedures be developed, maintained current and supported throughout asset lifecycles. Like the myths discussed in this article, a careful analysis of each shows they are all invalid when one considers the alternatives of lack of formality, non-conformance, and a casual attitude towards safety, productivity, quality of output and, where applicable, profitability. Even after major casualty events many organizations still don’t get the message that it is far less expensive to pay the price of becoming a procedure-based organization than to accept, for any reason (myth) one can imagine, not doing so.