Training lessons learned from the United States Army

Dec. 11, 2019
Take a precision-based, standards-focused approach to skills development.

In this article:

Are the craft trades in your organization qualified and certified to work in your facility? If you said yes, would you be able to provide the list of tasks – for a millwright, for example – used to qualify the person holding the role? Further, what steps were used to qualify that person on each of the tasks? Is there a recertification process for this craft, or is the person deemed qualified for life with no need for recertification or skills improvement?

If you are in an organization that has a good craft qualification and certification process, then your organization is in a better place than six of the eight organizations with which I have been involved. For those who do not have a qualification or certification process for their craft trades, let’s consider here how to develop a training process for your organization using principles similar to those employed by the United States Army. I will review the military system for training, based on my 20 years of service in the Army, and show how to use the same principles for designing or evaluating a training program at your site for hourly maintenance personnel, operations people performing maintenance tasks, and/or contract personnel, as well as salaried professionals.

The training program’s design can be tailored to your specific site’s needs to make it fit for purpose. The training process should encompass identifying the scope of training needs and the resources available; performing the training using specific tasks, conditions, and standards; hands-on training, testing, and evaluation; and direct involvement of site leaders. This process will provide a complete review of a site’s training needs, a process for developing quality training, and a feedback process for continuous skills development.

Read Part 1 of the article, "How your plant can train like the military"

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement of the training process is crucial for maintaining a quality workforce. This is achieved through in-field verification of individuals’ skills, verification of the quality of the field work done, and feedback from the workforce itself. Field verification can include tracking how many times each craft performs the skills learned as well as an audit process to verify that proper repairs (through application of the skills) are being performed in the field.

The audit process can be done by having trainers of the specific skills overseeing or checking the skills of the workforce while doing the actual work. The CMMS can be used to track which skills from the training program are being used and their frequency. These “counts” of skills used, along with field verification of the “quality” of skills provides feedback to management as to how to improve the content and frequency of the training. For example, we used field data to determine that our alignment training needed to be performed on an annual basis instead of every three years.

Additionally, feedback from the workforce, including which skills are covered, whether the training level is too high or too low, and whether the frequency is appropriate, can provide invaluable data for the overall program.

Using training suppliers

Important decisions need to be made about using external resources for training, developing the training internally, or using a combination of both. For the site discussed in this article, we decided to use a combination of external and internal resources, the former being the knowledge-based portion, and the latter being the performance-based portion. We used the NCCER system for the knowledge-based testing and verification, because their program was nationally recognized for several of the crafts that we had in our plant. However, we wanted a more tailored, site- and process-specific training program for our hands-on skills verification, so we decided to develop that in-house using on our own procedures.

There are many organizations that provide both performance-based training and skills verification programs (NCCER included), and their value and effectiveness should be evaluated for your plant’s use. These generic programs can always be used to kick-start a new training program at your site, and then you can build upon that foundation with bespoke internal training as the program matures. For our plant, developing our own hands-on verification and re-certification process had both short- and long-term benefits. The short-term advantages included the verification and development of our own workforce. Long term, the combination of an outside knowledge-based program with our in-house hands-on process could assist in developing future craft journeymen from younger outside applicants.

Our plant did not have a helper position listed in the contract, and management would not agree to change this. That meant we could not grow our own journeymen, so we had to hire off the street. We found it difficult to hire new people due to the aging demographics of the journeyman population industry-wide and the limited base of new journeymen looking for jobs. Long term, we could require applicants to be NCCER certified and then we could train, certify, and qualify them through our 3-year process to the journeyman level.

Operations personnel training

Thus far, I have focused the discussion on training maintenance personnel, but training operations personnel to operate the equipment properly is critical to a reliability-centric organization.

In my experience, operations personnel are trained to run the equipment until failure (although they don’t call it that), basically writing a work order once the equipment has failed. Best-in-class organizations have discovered the benefits of a well-trained operations workforce that recognizes the difference between running the equipment to failure and operating the equipment properly to avoid failures. These organizations have developed operator training to help them understanding how the equipment works and how to operate it properly, including lubrication training and taking vibration data, to name just a couple.

So why engage your operations workforce? Operators are the closest to the equipment, so they are the first to notice any significant changes, making them the front line for both production and reliability. Operators have the ability to react quickly to changes as they occur. The benefits of training them include having an engaged workforce that strives to keep the equipment running rather than running it to failure. Problems will be identified earlier (i.e., before complete failure), thus reducing repair costs, repair times, and improving equipment uptime. Work-order quality will also improve based on the operators’ fuller understanding of the equipment; this will lead to better scopes of repairs in the planning and scheduling process. Overall, this training process will help eliminate premature failures, improve operator ownership of the equipment, and foster a culture that does not tolerate failure.

Company vs. contract labor

We’ve discussed training your own company’s labor force, but what about your contract labor? Many organizations use contract labor to supplement their company’s workforce, but they do not have requirements for contractor qualifications other than a job title as specified in the service contract.

For example, one organization I worked for used a resident or in-house contractor to staff some of our routine millwright jobs. The job would call for one or more millwrights and one millwright supervisor per work order. In reality, what we got was one journeyman millwright (maybe) as the supervisor and helpers as the journeyman millwrights. This was unacceptable to me, because we would not staff a company millwright job this way, and the resulting work by the contractors was poor in quality and required considerable re-work.

I ended up using outside union-certified millwright companies, because I reviewed their qualifications and knew I would be getting what I requested. The cost was 2 to 2.5 times higher than what the in-house contractor charged us. I addressed this with the in-house contract supervisor, who stated that our agreed contract price was too low to hire qualified journeymen millwrights. That’s right, our in-house contractor, in order to get the contract in our facility, priced the trade craft too low to attract qualified craftsmen to fulfill their contract.

Both sides were to blame. From the beginning, we should have provided specific requirements in the contract defining what a “qualified craftsman” was during the bidding process. That way, all contractors would have bid on the contract on an even basis to provide the qualified craft we wanted.

But beware: specifying a skill set is not enough. If you do not inspect the contractor’s process for qualification and verify their training records, you may still get unqualified workers. As I learned in the military, you can expect what you inspect; having no inspections leads to a lower level of performance. In my experience, most organizations do not have craft-specific job qualifications, training, or skill verification for the craft trades, resulting in inconsistent, low-quality, and costly repairs. Without a qualification and certification process, the situation never improves. The overall costs to the company are much higher than if the company had developed a qualification and certification process from scratch.

Why train at all?

In the untrained culture, management actually rewards the low-skilled performers who are merely following routine. The poor quality repairs cause more failures, which many times occur after normal hours. Then the poorly trained craftsmen are called out to save the day (or night). They do the best repairs their skills allow, getting the equipment back on line as quickly as possible. Everyone is happy and pats themselves on the back, but just think what might be possible with a highly skilled workforce that fixes the equipment right so it lasts longer, reducing the number of future call outs. The choice is up to management.

I have heard some managers say, “If we train our workforce, then they will leave for another company, and we will have wasted the money.” In response, I ask: “What are the costs of NOT training them?” A trained, high-quality workforce is happier, more engaged, and more motivated, factors that result in higher retention rates. People want to be part of an organization that cares enough about them to spend money on their development. Yes, it makes them more marketable, but that is the type of workforce I want to be a part of. This applies not only to craft personnel, but to all of the personnel in your organization.

About the Authors: Craig Cotter and James Haw

Craig Cotter, P.E., CMRP, is maintenance and reliability leader for Oxy - Centurion in Houston, TX. He has 28 years of experience in reliability engineering and maintenance management. Cotter has a B.S. in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA. He is a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Contact him at [email protected].

James (Jim) Haw, P.E., CMRP, has 30 years of experience in engineering, reliability and major projects worldwide. He has a B.S. in electrical engineering and is a member of the ISA International Executive Board.

Engineers, as well as all personnel in your organization, need to be continuously developed, or they will not progress in their careers. Without training, they will become bored, leave the company, or become less effective compared with their trained peers. As a reliability supervisor of 12 engineers and 12 machinery specialists, I implemented a detailed training plan to develop and support my short- and long-term goals as well as their personal and professional goals, as laid out in our regular performance meetings.

My goals were to provide 1-2 weeks of internal training plus 2-4 weeks of external training per person per year. The internal training consisted of technical training provided by our corporate training group and/or formal vendor training on our plant machinery and equipment. I developed a training matrix and reviewed it each year with every employee to determine their needs and desires for training. This amount of training for my group was not cheap, but I was able to get the training approved each year by showing my boss the training plan for each person and how it tied back to their job and supported the plant. My boss was frugal, but he approved the training every year, resulting in more money per person for my group than for the other reliability superintendents.

We owe it to our employees to ensure they are a well-trained and capable workforce. If we are not going to invest in their training, we are failing as leaders. It is our responsibility to understand the capabilities of our workforce, assess their shortcomings, and develop training to close the gaps to facilitate best-in-class repairs, improved operations, and a safer, more reliable workplace.

A structured approach, similar to how the military trains, can provide a roadmap for developing a training program that prepares all personnel to perform the tasks required in their job in a safe, consistent, and reliable manner.

About the Author

Craig Cotter | P.E., CMRP

Craig Cotter, P.E., CMRP, is a mechanical engineer. He has more than 30 years of experience in reliability engineering and maintenance management. Cotter has a B.S. in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA. He is a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Contact him at [email protected].

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