July/August 2011

Minimizing time to experience, maximizing human performance

By Peter G. Martin and Larry Colwell

Every industrial executive who participated in a roundtable discussion Invensys recently hosted indicated replacing their aging and retiring workforce is one of their most difficult challenges. With a large segment of industrial operators, engineers, and managers on the verge of exiting the workforce, just about every function of every industrial operation needs to begin integrating new talent immediately, without jeopardizing productivity or adversely affecting output.

Some executives are also facing a serious training gap. Many gray beards are leaving the workforce, and plenty of fresh, eager-to-learn talent is entering, but few mid-level employees are experienced enough to take on the vacated senior roles. 

Fortunately, however, new advanced training methods and industrial technologies can significantly reduce employee time to experience over traditional approaches. These state-of-the-art training approaches not only can grow the proficiency of new personnel quickly, they can improve plant know-how to levels unachievable using traditional methods by driving incremental operational and financial performance improvement.

Learning from experience

Today's training techniques build on the experiential education developments of the 1970s, when educators began to realize supplementing traditional classroom training with real-world experience was quite powerful. Today, the most effective workforce development programs combine academic instruction with experience-based and on-the-job training, providing higher levels of retention than classroom training alone. Because trainees learn more when they are actually on the job, it has been a very effective way to shorten their time to experience.

Accelerating the process even further, however, are automated workflow tools, which essentially bring the classroom to the plant floor. They guide operators through established procedures, further developing their learning and enabling quicker and better decision making.

But even with the best workflow tools, plant managers are justifiably reluctant to allow inexperienced operators and other personnel enough unrestricted access to live processes for the amount of on-the-job training they might need to become proficient quickly. One solution is to provide a real-time experience off line by using simulators or virtual reality training systems.

Full, rigorous first-principle simulators offer operators a close-to-real plant environment, allowing trainees to experience and respond to any operating condition, even extremely dangerous situations, without risk to themselves, others, plant assets, and the community. This approach reduces the operators' time to experience by enabling them to deal with normal and exceptional situations hands-on.

A very recent breakthrough in experiential training is the use of low-cost virtual reality systems that interface with training simulators. These systems create highly effective, immersive, and true-to-life training environments that are incredibly safe. When effectively deployed and used in conjunction with training simulators and classroom approaches, the systems can dramatically reduce the time to experience for operations and maintenance personnel, helping to close the experience gap plaguing industry today.

Beyond experiential training

As an aging workforce starts to retire, closing the experience gap is absolutely essential to the effective operation of industrial plants, but, at best, it brings new operators only to the same levels as the operators they are replacing. For experiential training to be a true competitive advantage, operating performance must exceed current levels. While the effectiveness of on-the-job training has been accepted for decades, its traditional approach usually involves highly experienced workers overseeing the behavior of less experienced workers. While this is good, the objective is still merely to make the less experienced workers only as efficient as their mentors.

Now though, recent advances in the areas of real-time Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), real-time accounting, and real-time contextualized business intelligence are enabling training methods that can help new workers exceed the performance levels of their predecessors sooner. These KPIs and other data allow plant personnel to see and understand how their domain of responsibility impacts the operational and financial performance of the plant (and entire enterprise) in a format that corresponds with their individual experience, training, and capability. For example, after the KPIs are established, "dashboards" or "scorecards" that provide real-time performance feedback are embedded in the training environment. With this immediate data, everyone can assess their performance and understand how their actions have influenced the operational and financial potential of the plant. On average, such enhanced experiential training realizes a 100% return on investment within three months.

Advanced systems that integrate classroom, on-the-job training, workflow tools, simulation software, and real-time business modeling can close the employment gap, minimizing the time to employee efficiency and driving incremental operational and financial performance improvement.


Peter G. Martin is vice president of Strategic Ventures for Invensys Operations Management. Larry Colwell is a business value consultant for Invensys Operations Management.