News | December 29, 1998

Don't Lose Sleep Over Undocumented Procedures At Process Facilities

By Bill Biach, president, Biach Information Arts

A new plant manager at a specialty chemical company recently awoke to the realization that its waste treatment facility, which had been "out of sight and out of mind," had a serious need for up-to-date documentation. Built at the height of the environmental crunch, the treatment plant was greatly oversized for its present-day duties. The automation considered necessary for a large plant operating at peak capacity had proved a drawback in its less stringent mode, and ten years ago the plant had been returned to manual operation.

Even in the manual mode, the treatment plant required just a few operators. In most cases their tour of duty was relatively short-term, and they quickly moved on to the chemical facility itself. Then a new treatment plant manager was appointed. Looking into his new responsibilities, he understood that the existing documentation was hopelessly out of date and virtually useless, having been created for an automated plant which was now operated manually. He further realized that he had only one experienced operator on staff, a supervisor who, with no documentation available, was training his revolving personnel by showing them what to do, as he best understood it.

It was clearly time for the documentation to be refreshed, to reflect the realities of current plant and equipment and to outline optimal operating procedures for the continuously changing staff.

Back at the water treatment plant
How to get documentation help
Documentation Project Flowchart

This situation is by no means a unique one. It is fairly common today that as new plants or units are built, good documentation on operations and safety are prepared. But for older facilities, or those whose design has undergone changes, up-to-date documentation is hard to come by. An easy way for plant managers to lose sleep is to envision upset or disaster planning at a facility. Will you hear such phrases as "preventable accident" in the aftermath of an incident?

The issue is preparedness. You are responsible for processes, installations, perhaps the entire chemical plant or complex. How can you avoid mistakes and accidents? How can you ensure that your people, working with the process manuals, documentation and training you provide, are fully competent to meet the demands that will be placed upon them?

Through downsizing and natural attrition, skilled workers go and new workers come—a steady flow of people introducing new hazards like the possibility of mistakes and accidents. Clearly, new people need information and training. But if your training materials and programs aren't current, your workers may not be learning what they need. Regulatory standards like OSHA, ISO, EPA demand comprehensive training, testing and documentation of job skills. Failures of equipment or processes are frequently a result of missing, ignored or misunderstood information. Poor documentation and training increases liability risk and escalates costs associated with warranty support.

Back at the water treatment plant

To address the documentation gap at the treatment plant, management called in a documentation/training company as a facilitating partner. After scoping out the situation with the help of the manager and the savvy supervisor, the company began its work by the "walk-around" method (see below: How to get documentation help). A team of two shadowed the supervisor, asking questions and videotaping all operating activities in the plant.

It quickly became apparent that the current plant was quite different from the facility described in the obsolete documentation. Some "documented" equipment wasn't even there; other equipment was being operated in a significantly altered manner.

The captured information was put in structured format for discussion with the operators. As often happens in the course of this procedure, the experienced people began to realize that in some cases they had been straying away from optimum operation. Discussions alerted management to certain procedures that were not well understood by anybody; these areas were investigated and the best practice determined.

In the end, the documentation was fine-tuned to a high degree of accuracy. In addition to a clarification of procedures, "as builts" of the plant were developed: actual status and configuration of current equipment and setup, as opposed to the original design drawings in the file.

In the course of its examination, the shadowing team made certain observations that were presented as an addendum for management to ponder. Was the plant's warning signage up to modern requirements? Should a scheduled preventive maintenance program be instituted and if so, what should it comprise?

Actual deliverables included verification and complete documentation of current configuration and procedure. The documentation was supported by computer-based training, an excellent vehicle for training existing staff and future hires.

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How to get documentation help

Developing suitable documentation is often a case where the internal engineering staff can do the job, but at the cost of extra time, diversion from profit-making tasks, and with uncertain quality. The author recalls seeing a densely written mountain of words with the title "Product Stewardship." This mass of information had buried in it for how truck drivers, arriving at a chemical plant, were to hook up their equipment to unload tankers. It would be a rare trucker indeed who could work his way quickly through this "book" and then figure out what chemical-transfer pump to use.

An alternative is to bring in documentation/training specialists who can develop the necessary materials. A primary advantage is that some of these companies have developed a coherent, structured process for producing media that meet all needs for documentation, reference and training, and at a reasonable cost. In a relatively short time, with minimal intrusion on daily operations, this approach formats and delivers document materials, prepares the required manuals and training programs, and tests the deliverables to assure that the necessary and computerized reference systems (CBT and Web based delivery) information is not only present but easily and precisely accessible.

Our company, Biach Information Arts, uses the following flowchart to achieve structured results. A key part of this process is the "walk-around," in which documentation specialists follow the expert plant operators and engineers as they perform their tasks.

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Documentation Project Flowchart

  1. Project initiation: All available resource material is collected—all vendor manuals, training manuals, product manuals, machine manuals—anything in print about the machine or process.
  2. People who understand the machine or process are interviewed.
  3. The machine or process line is photographed and videotaped in action. With this approach, no time is wasted on drawings for the manual. Instead, explanatory photos are used liberally in the knowledge base.
  4. The project—both data and photo library—is divided into viable work packages.
  5. Focus maps (rough drafts) are prepared to check with company experts. The material will be viable and close to the final product: a critical factor in gaining the wholehearted cooperation of the company's experts.
  6. A meeting is held with company experts to approve or revise the focus maps and sharpen the appropriate detail.
  7. The completed knowledge base program is delivered in flexible formats, from database to print or a variety of computer-based, intranet- or Internet-delivered materials.

One of the key points of the new technique is the knowledge ware company's use of "preparation experts" to perform data collection and document preparation steps. These experts are NOT engineers or specialists in any particular subject matter. They are experts on facilitating, collecting and organizing knowledge, with a clear idea of what they're looking for in terms of operating and maintaining the equipment or line, pinpointing human-machine interfaces, understanding the function. Preparation experts save the company a great deal of time and trouble, by use of job aids and feedback mechanisms to avoid the frustration of constant rechecking. They use data organization and industrial engineering techniques in the service of the underlying concepts of speed and good organization, delivering efficient, effective information.

The structured information approach is user-friendly—for the chemical company's engineers involved in the project, for the generations of operators to be trained with the flexible, readily up datable materials, and for you, the manager who set the work in progress. Now, in your responsibility for processes, installations, perhaps the entire chemical plant or complex, you can be assured that your people know what they are doing. The structured information methodology enables you to minimize liability and risk, and assure an optimum up to date, comprehensive knowledge warehouse for the continued well-being of your plant.

Bill Biach is president of Biach Information Arts, 15-17 North Ave. East, Suite B, Cranford, NJ 07016. Telephone: 908 497 0585

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