January 2019

Trends & Resources

Business Trends: The case for teaching competence—Part 2

Readers who have had the misfortune of being drawn into debates over the precise definitions of words or terms might agree that much time can be lost in unproductive squabbling.

Brister, D., Shea Capability & Compliance Solutions; Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

Readers who have had the misfortune of being drawn into debates over the precise definitions of words or terms might agree that much time can be lost in unproductive squabbling. The authors are not alone in their belief that an entity will prosper only if its employees add value. Value adders will do so if they are capable, comply with prescribed action steps, respond to training, and are dependable and consistent.

Suffice it to say that these needs are captured in the single word “competence,” and that we want to explore and stipulate how best-of-class companies (BOCs) consistently achieve profitability and stability by imparting competence to their employees. How they do so in a structured manner is the subject of this article.

Part 1 reviewed the meaning of competence and actions that management can take to encourage competence. The extent to which good competence management has been achieved is examined by formal assessment, which is the topic of Part 2.

Workplace assessment—What “good” looks like

The workforce capability risk for the next generation is only increasing as competent, aging workforce members leave or retire. In the past, new hires could stand next to individuals who knew what to do and how to do it. Today, they mostly stand alone, working and doing their best with little help from others. No one is there to provide the guidance and training needed for safe and reliable work. However, bright and competent workers have the capacity to add value.

As we have stated previously, for any formal assessment of individuals in their workplace, each job role must have competency standards that are clearly written. That is, the knowledge and performance requirements of operation are described in detail for each worker. Those standards should be provided and explained to the workers up front. A listing should be made of the types of evidence an individual could provide to their assessor to help prove their competence in the assigned role; the listing must be compiled prior to the assessor conducting the actual workplace assessment.

Those who conduct workplace assessments of workers’ knowledge and performance must themselves be skilled and competent in the job role functions they will assess. In other words, they must be trained and qualified in the competencies required by a workplace assessor. The assessor’s job is to remain neutral throughout the full assessment and defer judgment until all evidence can be reviewed and measured to the competency standard.

We recommend that companies initially look to hire trained and qualified assessors. Once management understands where the safety-critical capability gaps are, it can then focus on specific training to help close those gaps, and later reassess those individuals to prove knowledge and performance. Once a company’s competency management system is in place, management should carefully select key individuals to train and qualify as internal assessors so they can independently conduct ongoing assessments.

Formal assessments by trained and qualified job-role assessors provide a collection of evidence to measure an individual’s competence against a required standard. In high-hazard industries, meeting your standard of safety is at the top of the list of competence measures.

That is why we consulted one of several texts authored by Todd Conklin.5 Dr. Conklin is one of America’s most highly respected safety experts and is Senior Advisor at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Conklin says:

“I’m about to commit safety blasphemy. Workers don’t cause failure; workers trigger failure. They trigger weaknesses that already exist in the environment in which they work—the processes, the systems, the job sites—and in the organization itself. Ultimately, you should only try to understand failure for what you can learn, not for who you can blame. Cause-and-effect implies a remarkably linear failure path—a mechanical failure. But human failure is never linear. Human failure always involves complex relationships: relationships between people and processes, people and technology, people and machines, people and other people.”

Conklin then goes on to highlight context, consequence and retrospective understanding as the three parts of a system failure:

  • Context is everything that led up to the actual event: the worker, the worker’s mindset, the environment, other people, hazards and planning among the various precursors.
  • Consequences indicate what happened. Examining consequences reveals the effect of the failure, the damage or harm done, and the deviation from the expected behavior. This is the ending of the event.
  • Retrospective understanding brings to the forefront how the organization views the failure or deviation from the expected behavior. This is where all the knowledge about the failure is available, and this is when most organizations look for a cause in their quest to understand what happened.

Dr. Conklin’s main point in his book, Pre-Accident Investigation, is that organizations must stop looking to blame the worker or frontline leader as the cause of the failure. Rather, they should ensure the competency of their operational leaders in the company’s safety standards and create a culture of cross-communication and collaboration that is the driving force on the frontline. Also, we should make sure to recognize our frontline workers and leaders, because they are keeping our facilities safe and reliable.

Learning to develop deep competence

As we reflect on Conklin’s ideas, we must learn from the success of others. The best companies thrive because they invest in their managers, frontline leaders and workers with regard to personal competence. Only competent managers can be the leaders that groom competent employees.

FIG. 3. Dual seal for slurry pump services. A flush liquid must be introduced into the cavity between the inner and outer seals. Image courtesy of AESSEAL Inc.
FIG. 3. Dual seal for slurry pump services. A flush liquid must be introduced into the cavity between the inner and outer seals. Image courtesy of AESSEAL Inc.

In one example, a company implemented a competency management system for its operations leaders and teams. It began with an edict from corporate offices requiring managers to develop equal competency in maintaining and operating multibillion-dollar plants. The heads of maintenance and operations were told to be ready to “switch hats” at a moment’s notice.6 A few months later, they would switch back to their former job functions. This random switching compelled the department heads to know each other’s craft and to cooperate at a previously unprecedented degree. Each became competent by practicing what experts had been advocating. There were no “silos of knowledge,” no hoarding of know-how nor propagation of flawed work processes and procedures. The two hat-switchers became superb professionals, clearly capable and deserving to be promoted ahead of many others. As a result, the destructive finger-pointing between the maintenance and operating departments, which was a major barrier to optimizing competency, no longer exists today.

These managers and others at BOCs accepted their obligation to groom competent workers. Competent workers are needed if a company wants continuity or staying power. How these competent managers proceed is best demonstrated by an example relating to entry-level mechanical engineers. Fifteen yr or 20 yr from today, these engineers will be expected to perform as competent subject matter experts (SMEs). Chances are, these SMEs will then be called upon to design and dependably operate a partially automated petrochemical facility that is packed with more than 1,000 fluid machines. These are positive displacement and dynamic compressors with power ratings often reaching into six digits. Competent professionals will be needed for the success of such plants.

At the BOCs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, company management and employees knew that an asset’s reliability was affected by how competently it had been initially specified, selected and installed. The entire workforce was aware that safe and reliable function also depended on how the asset was being operated and maintained. In plants staffed by competent workers, the old adage, “When it’s all said and done, more is said than done,” has been replaced by “All that is said is being done.” Commitments are honored.

PMT meetings, structured reading and shirtsleeve seminars.

Progressive BOCs prospered 30 yr or 40 yr ago by implementing weekly 2-hr PMT meetings.6 For good reason, these weekly meetings had to be attended by process operators (the P in PMT) who, in the previous week, had written a work order; maintenance and mechanical technicians (M) who had worked on and remedied the flawed asset; and the technical staffers (T) whose job it was to recommend steps to avoid repeat failures of the asset. Attendees from P, M and T learned from each other, and they jointly accepted responsibility for improving the safety, profitability and reliability of assets entrusted to their care. This is one of the ways individuals representing P, M and T shaped and honed their competence.

Suppose the dual mechanical seal in Fig. 3 needed to be replaced soon after P had put a pump online. At the meeting, the M participant would show the failed seal to the assembled group and explain why it had run dry. Participant T would confirm that seals of this type typically run without difficulty for 6 yr at the company’s affiliate locations, but that it required a liquid flush medium to carry away heat. Instead of now accusing P of having forgotten to open the seal flush supply valve, P, M and T would quickly agree that an engraved tag stating “Verify that flush liquid supply valve is open before starting this pump” should be riveted, screwed or glued to the start-stop station. Case closed, lesson learned, peace maintained.6

Truly exceptional companies realize that learning begins after graduating from college or university and that some solid learning costs nothing. Therefore, these companies institutionalize a rigorous training program. This training program is mapped out in great detail; it consists of four phases that nudge individuals toward competency. Within each phase there are team activities, such as shared reviewing of trade journals (Phase 16). In Phase 2, they conduct “shirtsleeve seminars” for maintenance and technical employees and participate in structured weekly meetings with operator, maintenance and technical representatives.

Training in Phase 3 includes presentations to a plant steering committee; attending local evening events of ASME, STLE, SMRP, Vibration Institute or similar meetings; and involvement in organizing lunch-and-learn sessions, with the emphasis on learn, not lunch. Most of these training activities cost next to nothing and precede Phase 4, which is attending out-of-state technical conferences.

FIG. 4. Seriously abraded oil ring (second from left) and a questionable “coffin cross-section” redesign (right) offered by a pump manufacturer.
FIG. 4. Seriously abraded oil ring (second from left) and a questionable “coffin cross-section” redesign (right) offered by a pump manufacturer.

Our note to readers of this article: The four phases of gaining competence are further discussed and described in books, articles and conference proceedings that are read and acted upon by people who wish to be competent, not merely trained.6

At the risk of sounding repetitious, technical employees at BOCs enable their employees to become value-adders. A manager sees to it that technical journals are circulated among employees and important articles are retrieved and archived. These articles are forwarded to individuals who teach those who have expressed the desire to become competent. Relevant books dealing with safety and reliability are available to those who accept the responsibility of learning from good teachers, which will add more value than reinventing the wheel or engaging in experimentation based on “gut feeling.”

Competence training would call for measuring the before vs. after use dimensions of the oil rings shown in Fig. 4. The root causes of oil ring slippage and abrasion are clearly understood, and can be discovered during Phase 1 and 2 training. A reliability professional with overall competence would question the redesigned offer of the “coffin cross-section” and point out that its corner geometry allows line contact with the surfaces of the U-shaped spool. This will not eliminate the risk of breaking through, or wiping off, an oil film at the point of contact. Far more intelligent solutions exist and will be pursued by SMEs who, by virtue of the role assigned to them and the competence training they will have received, will insist on more sensible upgrades.

The second competence inculcation strategy involves so-called “shirtsleeve seminars.” At the end of every monthly safety meeting at a BOC facility, a preselected staffer rolls up his or her sleeves and presents a well-prepared, 4 min–7 min overview of topics of interest. “When not to use bearings with riveted cages,” or “Why we have disc pack couplings and rubber block couplings driving different machines” could be on the list of 100 or more subjects that must be learned and understood. Since these subjects are rarely taught at universities, the presenters must first educate themselves. They must seek help from vendors and fellow employees whose detailed guidance and important craft expertise are of great value. Even managers may gain insight from these thoughtful disseminations.


We recognize that in industrial jobs, on-the-job training has been effective in the past, mainly due to management maintaining stricter control, guidance, testing and observations before a new worker was allowed to work unsupervised. In the past, even after the new workers were working independently, they still had many more senior craftsmen and operations personnel around them in the workplace to help prevent them from making mistakes or committing a violation that could have led to disaster within the facility, warehouse or factory.

Today, those senior craftsmen and operations personnel are fewer and management is stretching them much further, to the point where our “next-generation workforce” no longer has an experienced person working close by to stop them or question their next steps, and to make sure they are in line with the company’s practices and procedures before they act. In the last decade, we have seen a rise in incidents in the workplace where safety and technical skills are required. Our new workforces are not being held accountable by their leaders to follow practices and procedures. We are not truly establishing a culture of safety wherein our next-generation workers feel free to speak up if they have concerns about undertaking an unfamiliar task.

The majority of industrial countries around the world moved to competency management more than 25 yr ago; they did so whenever safety and technical skills were needed to conduct work. In the US, we mainly just “train” our workers and send them out into our facilities, warehouses and factories assuming we have done all we need to do to make sure they are successful in their job roles.

The co-authors hope you will take another look at your next-generation workforce and the leaders who manage them. Be determined to make an investment in their skills and capabilities going forward. The return on investment may surprise you. HP

The Authors

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