Process Operator Training Practices Revealed

According to a recent ARC survey, the top three objectives of manufacturers as they plan for operator training are to improve safety, increase process knowledge and improve profit of the plant.

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By a nearly two-to-one margin, safety tops the list. As might be expected, the top three subjects covered in new operator training include process fundamentals, basic equipment operations and work procedures.

The consensus was that once operators have experience in their jobs, that annual testing is enough to determine the skills and knowledge of these senior operators. Of course, events such as starting up a new process unit, process design change for a unit or changes in the operator's job are significant enough to warrant additional training for the majority of manufacturers that responded to our survey.

Respondents were asked to indicate all of the training processes that their companies use to be prepared for various operating modes. The responses indicate that on-the-job training (OJT) is the favorite choice, closely followed by use of operating manuals. Formal, scheduled classroom (CR) training is not favored except for start-up training for new processes.

What can be observed from these answers is that OJT and Operating Manual-based training are less formal and therefore less explicit than Computer-based Training (CBT) or classroom-based training. OJT and Operating Manual-based training methods rely much more on self-training or implied experience of co-workers and supervisors. While this may be satisfactory, the question is whether these methods should form the core of training, as it apparently does.

We also asked how companies test operator proficiency for the same operating modes. Note the reliance on supervisor evaluations. While supervisors surely know how the plant and processes should run, not all supervisors are alike in their ability to act as evaluator of personnel skills. Similar to reliance on OJT and Operating Manuals for training, these evaluation methods are less expensive, but are not as explicit as formal programs or trainer-guided evaluation methods.

Many manufacturers felt that their companies are above average or in some cases best-in-class when it comes to incident avoidance, start-ups and shut-downs, and routine shift tasks. The responses were centered on a self-assessed average rating for product loss or rerun, process knowledge, operator-initiated improvements and process equipment utilization. When it came to energy conservation and process troubleshooting, the average response was slightly below average.

Knowledge workers

Part of the mix of truly excellent companies is the attention paid to their people as an important class of company assets. ARC has recommended that manufacturers look for ways to turn their people into knowledge workers. In that context, training plays a key role. From the survey, it is clear that while these companies feel that they are, for the most part, average or better, there is always room for improvement.

Try evaluating your operator training practices against your company’s effectiveness. If you believe your company is average, then perhaps you should consider above-average training methods as part of a program to help you move ahead of your competitors.

You need programs that are explicitly designed to thoroughly train operators and evaluate their skills in order to properly ensure that operating personnel are ready for any and all circumstances they may encounter. While operating manuals may be well written and supervisors may be skilled in their own right, relying too heavily on these methods for training and evaluation will lead to sub-optimal performance.

Seek the guidance of training-services companies, if you are not sure if you have the necessary training skills in-house. Be sure to look for outside help that has experience in your particular industry, as the best practices for operators that they will introduce can make a huge difference in your overall operational effectiveness.

Dick Hill, dhill@arcweb.com, is Vice President and General Manager of Manufacturing Advisory Services at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass.
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