Skip to main content

Articles & Blogs

The Problem with Procedures...

Everyone loves procedures! Well, that may be a bit strong. But for industrial workers trying to complete their jobs safely, they are certainly important. Right? In many industries, they are also legally required. So, you would think that procedures would be a non-issue in industrial settings, and yet many, if not most, companies still need help to achieve the levels of procedure usage they would like.  

For companies trying to promote safety, cost-effective operations and compliance – procedures are not only important – they are the main tool available to communicate work processes and standards to their workforce, and to assist, instruct and guide how work should be performed and documented. Training and supervision are also big pieces of this puzzle, but industrial training generally occurs at the front end, when a new employee is onboarded or a new process is launched – and supervision resources are limited – so procedures remain the most critical and relied upon resource for managing day-to-day work activities. 

So, given their importance, how is it that procedures could be used better at industrial facilities? There can be a number of different reasons – let’s look at a (fictional) example:  

Bob is a maintenance tech at Plant XYZ, a nuclear power generation facility. He and his co-worker, Hector, have been assigned a work package to replace incorrect grease found in a motor-operated valve (MOV) actuator in the plant.   

Bob’s first task is to review the procedure that the job planner, Preeti, specified in the work package; there is no “actuator grease change-out” procedure – it is not something anyone ever expected to happen, so there is no specific procedure for it. The planner just put in the annual maintenance procedure for these actuators. Bob has been around a while, so he knows of at least two other types of procedures that involve these actuators, and he has used them both, although it has been several months. While the annual maintenance procedure will work, it’s huge and covers way more tasks than should be required for this job. Bob thinks that the procedure for adjusting the actuator limit and torque settings will cover it; it is a much shorter procedure and contains much less detail, but he’s pretty sure it is all he would need. He decides to review the various options, but hopefully, the short one can be made to work, and he can get the work package changed. The MOV is in a contaminated area of the plant, and it is always a pain to get paper checked out of the area by the radiation techs, and if you try to come out of the area with a 100-page procedure (like the annual maintenance one), they make you stand aside until everyone else is cleared.   

Hector, on the other hand, is fairly new and hasn’t actually worked on one of these actuators.  He would really appreciate all the details available, but he doesn’t say anything because Bob is the lead – Hector just met him and does not want to give the impression that he can’t handle the job. If Bob hadn’t been there, Hector would have had no idea other procedures for this even existed, and even though they watched a video about these actuators when he joined the crew a couple of months ago, he isn’t super confident about how they work. He’ll just keep his head down and follow Bob’s lead.  

Bob takes a look at the uncontrolled copies that are stored in binders in the shop and finds that the planner is right, the annual maintenance procedure is the only one that talks about grease removal and replacement.  But, the procedure assumes the entire actuator is being disassembled and reassembled, so the grease removal and grease application pieces are in separate parts of the procedure. And it is way too big – it has all these special sections about things that you might need to do for annual maintenance but have nothing to do with their current job.  Since he looked at it last the procedure has grown, now it’s closer to 200 pages! Wendell, one of the senior guys in his crew, says the grease change-out is a simple job; he says they would be better off skipping the procedure entirely, rather than trying to navigate all that paper and having to deal with unhappy radiation techs. Bob isn’t about to do that – guys have been fired for working without a procedure, but maybe he can get by with just taking the relevant sections of the procedure into the area. It doesn’t exactly fit what they will be doing, but it should be close enough. Bob considers asking his supervisor, but he is in meetings until after lunch, so that would waste half a day at least. Bob has heard of some process for stitching pieces of a procedure together like this and having an engineer review it, but Bob hasn’t really done that before, and isn’t sure which engineer he would need to talk to.  No telling how long it would take to get all that figured out. Bob hates sitting on his hands waiting. There is no good answer for this – he decides to just go ahead and take the whole annual maintenance procedure and just skip parts.  It will be a good experience for Hector, at least.  

It would be much easier and quicker to pull what they needed from a spare copy that he saw in the shop – it was printed two or three weeks ago, and he is sure it hasn’t changed – especially the sections about changing grease. But he knows the company frowns on that, so now he’ll have to go across the site, verify the version and hope the copier isn’t broken so they can make a copy to take to the field.  All of this verifying and copying used to be the job planner’s responsibility, but lately, they’ve been short-staffed and only spend the minimum time possible on each package.  So now it is up to Bob and Hector to handle it.  This was going to take hours. 

In this example, Bob and Hector have barely begun, and already there’s a ton of angst around what should be a simple job. What are some of the barriers (real or perceived) that make this such an issue?

  • Procedure applicability – In our example, there is no procedure that exactly fits the job Bob and Hector have been assigned. This is a common situation for many companies today. It can be mitigated to some extent by standardizing work tasks, creating “modular” procedures written to allow procedure sections to be executed independently and in different sequences, or by creating a large number of procedures to attempt to cover every possibility (which has its own downsides).  In my experience, it is not possible to predict, prepare and have the perfect procedure written for every task that our teams may be required to handle.  
  • Different needs – Bob, Hector and Wendell each have different preferences with regard to how much detail they need in a procedure. Unfortunately, it is not sustainable for companies to author and maintain multiple variations of each procedure to cater to the different experience levels that may exist in their workforce. Usually, the default is that the planner just provides the most detailed procedure available.  
  • Procedure size and complexity – Bob (and Wendell) regard this as a huge issue – and although being in a nuclear plant makes it even more difficult, workers in any industry tend to avoid (or skim through without reading) huge procedures that they regard as difficult to navigate or hard to use. Some companies on the other hand, are much more likely to add content to procedures than to remove it. They add cautions and extra steps in response to mistakes that have happened, more clarification for new users like Hector or perhaps just new guidance that the company has gained through experience. There is a delicate balance needed, especially as more experienced workers are replaced with new hires, as companies seek to provide enough detail and guidance to help new users while also keeping the procedures as simple, clear, and easy to use as possible. 

So, what is the solution? Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is not a silver bullet that can be taught or bought that will solve all of the issues the industry faces with regard to the conflicting requirements for procedures in today’s industrial workplaces. There are, however, some actions we can take that might help get us closer ... 

  • Reduce barriers to procedure utilization – in too many cases, there are logistical or organizational barriers that make it more difficult than it should be to obtain or use needed procedures. Companies mandate the use of procedures but sometimes give little thought to the steps needed for workers to comply. If getting a print-out or copy is difficult, if there are no solid processes for finding the right procedure and/or verifying you have the latest version – that is a problem.  If there are active disincentives for utilizing complete procedures (like the radiation tech group in this example), that is an even bigger problem.  
  • Slightly different training - most companies do a reasonable job at training personnel to execute various procedures, and many use some sort of certification scheme to make sure workers are getting the appropriate refresher training (as required by law in some industries). These are both critical to safe and effective operations. But in the story above, that wasn’t exactly the issue – it was more about the confusion surrounding what to do when a square peg (an unusual job) doesn’t fit into a round hole (available “standard” procedures). Training on how to manage the inevitable cases when the work requires part of a procedure, pieces from different procedures, or potentially even a non-existent procedure – may be an area where more training is needed. The direction for workers may well be to ask for their supervision in these cases – but then we probably need to ensure that supervisors receive proper training on how to navigate these gray areas to make the best decision possible for both the company and the workers. 
  • More robust Work Planning – in the example above, all of Bob’s confusion (and complaints) may have been resolved if Preeti, the job planner, had specified exactly which sections and steps of the procedure were relevant and how Bob and Hector should bridge between the disconnected parts of the procedure they needed to work, confirmed the procedure version the day prior to the work, and included a copy of that latest procedure in the package.  Or perhaps Preeti could have decided that the best work plan in this situation would be to replace the actuator entirely, taking the old one to the bench for maintenance so that the existing annual maintenance procedure could be used without needing special adjustments.  Planners are SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) and should be in the best position to make decisions on repair methodology. For companies who have provided their work planning groups with the time and resources necessary to provide individualized direction – and empowered them with the authority to make those decisions, this can be a great option.  
  • Digitalization – in our example, what Bob and Hector really needed was a dynamic procedure that covered exactly the job they were doing (so it could be as short and simple as possible), able to provide more detailed steps for Hector – maybe with pictures or videos as training aids, while showing Bob a less detailed version that just guided him through the minimum required steps.  It would be even better if Hector’s version of the procedure could be provided in Spanish since that is his first language. In the best case, the procedure wouldn’t need to be printed out at all (it would be on a mobile device), so its size would never be an issue. Some effort is still required, however, to ensure that the device/software selected will actually improve the user’s experience – presenting procedures clearly and logically so that they are easy to navigate and to enter needed data even when the job is complex.  
    Although there may not be a product on the market that does all of that today, there are digitalized procedure systems that can do at least some of this. Hexagon’s own solution in this space not only helps companies provide digitized procedures, but it also enhances authoring consistency, user training, certification tracking and enables the capture of feedback on procedures as they are being used in the field. More important than the specific features and functions a particular solution may provide, digital technology, in general, provides a path to potentially meet these needs in the future in a way that paper-based systems just can’t.  

What would you have done in Bob and Hector’s spot? Escalated the question(s) to your supervisor? Taken the “big” procedure into the area and tried to use the relevant parts, writing in a couple hundred N/A’s where steps didn’t apply? Or would you have just printed out the relevant parts of the procedure beforehand, hoping you didn’t miss anything important? If you were Hector, would you speak up and ask for the most detailed version because you hadn’t worked on this particular equipment before? 

These are not simple questions – and, importantly, they are not technical questions – it is not about the best way to change out the grease in a particular type of actuator. It is about the people involved, and the decisions they make, and what tools, training and processes companies can provide to help them make the best decisions possible for themselves and the company. 

Thanks for taking the time to join us. I hope this article was useful, or at least got you thinking. Until next time. Alan S. 

About the Author

Alan Sullivan is a Senior Industry Consultant with Hexagon's Asset Lifecycle Intelligence division. With over 30 years as a software consultant specializing in plant-floor applications, Alan specializes in gathering requirements and working with large companies to design and implement software solutions to help their facilities address challenges and improve operations. In the last 20 years Alan has led projects and delivered successful solutions for clients in LNG, automotive manufacturing, nuclear power generation and other industries. Part of Hexagon’s pre-sales team focused on Operations and Maintenance, Alan works with owner operators to discuss their business processes, requirements and challenges – and how Hexagon solutions might help.

Profile Photo of Alan Sullivan