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.

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