Many process plants are refocusing efforts around the use of procedures for plant operation. However, there are skeptics as to whether this is the best approach, arguing that not everything can be proceduralized and that operators need to be able to think for themselves. As with most complex problems, the answer lies somewhere in between the two.
Research sponsored by the European Space Agency examined the effect on performance of procedure-based training versus system/ knowledge-based training (Hockey, G.R., Sauer, J., and Wastell, D.G., “Adaptability of Training in Simulated Process Control: Knowledge- Versus Rule-Based Guidance Under Task Changes and Environmental Stress,” Human Factors, Vol. 49, No. 1, Feb. 2007, pp.158-174). Subjects were either (1) instructed to follow the procedures and set rules-of-thumb, or (2) instructed on the interaction between the systems, including being asked to predict system response for postulated faults and then observing the actual response.
The subjects controlled a simulated spacecraft environment with the primary task of maintaining environmental parameters within acceptable levels and a secondary task of identifying, diagnosing, and rectifying any faults that occurred.
For less familiar and complex tasks, operators given system-based training fared better at managing/controlling the system than those receiving procedural training. However, the procedure-based training group was faster for diagnosing fault states and was less impacted by environmental stress [in this case power tool noise at 85 dB(A)]. Some of the results also indicate that the system-based training group was more proactive, not waiting for a fault to appear in order to act.
So which training approach should be used? The authors acknowledge the need for training on both general system operation and procedural use. They wisely recognize that one of the dilemmas is how to recognize when to shift strategies. How does the operator know that the situation they are facing is not covered by a procedure, and they need to shift to a system-based diagnostics? This is a question for future research.
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