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Improving Team Performance: Creating Expert Teams Rather Than Teams Of Experts


Controlling chemical processing plants is a highly team dependent activity. In most plants, one control board operator must interact with two or more outside operators in addition to coordinating their activities with other plants. Unfortunately at some plants, the crew functions as a team of experts, unable to assist each other and moderate the workload peaks. The results of poor team performance can include ruined product, damaged equipment, and even injured personnel.

Fortunately, research is being conducted on the factors that create high team performance. One recent study: CannonBowers, J., Salas, E., Blickensderfer, E., (1998). The Impact of Cross-Training and Workload on Team Functioning: A Replication and Extension of Initial Findings, Human Factors, 40, 92-101, extended previous research by investigating the nature of cross-training and impact of crosstraining and workload on team performance.

In the study, teams of subjects performed simulated combat radar detection under high and low workload conditions. Cross-training was also conducted via positional rotation on half of the teams. Team members were tested after the training to ensure their understanding and proficiency.

There were several results of the study, including validating that cross-training is an effective way to enhance team performance. Those that were cross-trained correctly engaged nearly 25% more targets than those that were not. The cross- trained teams were faster and more accurate than their noncross-trained counterparts.

Teams that were cross-trained were found to have more efficient communication patterns and volunteer information more readily. Through the knowledge gained in crosstraining, teams were able to coordinate their actions implicitly rather than communicating them overtly.

Another important finding was that under high workload conditions, effects of cross-training were most pronounced and the cross-trained teams had the highest performance. Under low workload conditions, the effects were negligible and cross-trained and non-cross-trained teams performed about the same.

The authors of the study suggest that it may well be possible to customize or tailor the cross-training to individual team members. For example, outside operators may only need to be cross trained on certain aspects of a control board job instead of the entire control board job.

The study findings have obvious implications for managing high workload upset and emergency conditions. Rotating through job positions is an effective form of cross training that will increase the effectiveness of the crews, with the greatest benefit appearing during upset and emergency conditions.

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How to Build a Better Operator - ABB Automation & Power World Control


This year's Fall meeting for the Center for Operator Performance will be October 24-26 in Corpus Christi. For more information, please contact Lisa Via. Guests are always welcome!


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David Strobhar's book, "Human Factors in Process Plant Operation," is now available in both hardcover and Kindle e-book.

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