Best known for his work in management and leadership, Warren Bennis once said:
“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
For as long as there has been work, there have been efforts to automate it. And for as long as there has been automation, there have been efforts to keep the man from touching the equipment.
But at some point human intervention becomes necessary. When it does, a safe operation assures the people are trained, informed and prepared to do their work quickly, smoothly and effectively.
So safety isn’t just about preventing accidents and injuries; it’s also about unscheduled downtime, asset utilization, avoidance and minimization of non-steady states – in a word, money. Processes that run safely also run cost effectively and increase the organization’s value.
That’s the role of an effective human interface – the series of systems that let man and machine get along with the best possible results. Here are the keystones for that interface:
Integrated operations and systems: This matters at multiple levels. It involves integration of operating systems – seamless connections between control systems, power systems, data networks, PLCs, etc. But it also involves management systems: ERP and maintenance management as examples.
Integration doesn’t mean accessing multiple platforms with web-based interfaces; that takes time and requires knowledge in multiple systems. Real integration brings data and functionality from multiple systems into a single familiar interface. That means operators have fewer systems to learn and train on; they can access information quickly and easily when it’s needed; and they can focus on solving problems earlier.
High-performance environment: This helps operators to become aware of changing states earlier – often before the first warning. It includes such features as cool or grayscale graphics to improve visibility of alarms. It may involve redundant reporting – giving operators an ability to confirm data that may appear to be incorrect. It also includes situational awareness –putting data into meaningful context. (Did the temperature in a process rise gradually over time, or did it spike quickly?) Part of this, of course is alarm management. These capabilities avoid flood situations that can overwhelm operators – a situation that has been linked to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Human factors: Work environments can be designed to maximize the effectiveness of operators. From displays to control panels to acoustics and work stations, control centers that are outdated or under-designed for their current use can cause confusion and slow response to legitimate alarms.
Operator competence: Many companies provide operators with generic training – teaching the concepts needed to manage abnormal situations. High-performance organizations train on the same interface that will be used on the job. The payoff is a significant reduction in alarms, and faster response when alarms do arise.
Many companies focus on one of two of these keystones. Only the best focus on all of them – with the result being a better safety record and improved financial results.
What do you think are the most important factors in creating a safe and efficient operation?