How Operator Care Rounds Support a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Many manufacturers expect operators to conduct process checks during their shifts. Operators are typically very good at checking performance measures but do not adequately check for reliability aspects of the assets and systems. There are many reasons to improve how operator care rounds are conducted: to identify functional failures before catastrophic failures occur, to increase employee engagement, and to improve consistency across crews and shifts.

Ideally, most of the operator tasks on the round should be a result of specific failures that have been identified for the most critical assets on site. A thorough Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) will deliver detailed recommendations that operators should be conducting in each environment. In addition to following FMEA recommendations, improving how operator care rounds are conducted offers a huge opportunity to engage employees. When you establish temporary teams of operators to design the first set of rounds, employees are helping to shape their future.

Engaging employees in the design of the operator rounds allows you to tap the knowledge of experienced crafts people and operators before they retire and take all that knowledge with them.  For example, at a plastics blow-mold factory when the round was being established on a motor, one of the senior operators recommended included increasing the frequency of a check on a filter. He knew from experience that the filter gets clogged more frequently in the summer because the employees open a bay door to keep the air moving, which stirs up more dust. The newer employees didn’t realize this was important until this was added to the operator round.
At a grain elevator, there was a high, elevated sprocket that was hard to see from the floor. It was important to verify that it was turning clockwise and the senior operator recommended a visual indicator – marking the sprocket with reflective paint to easily see if it was turning properly. This was something he had recommended a couple of years before but no one put his idea into play until the operator rounds were being developed with his input. Now that sprocket is marked and that check is done consistently.

Operator rounds are only as good as the process of using the collected data after the round is completed. If operators believe the rounds are never reviewed and the reports pile up on a supervisor’s desk, they will begin to pencil-whip the rounds and stop caring. To keep employees engaged in making improvements, you need a solid game plan for reviewing and taking action based on operator rounds. For the rounds to remain viable, work orders need to be written and completed to remedy issues identified during the rounds.

At a nuclear fuel conversion facility, after just three months of using newly developed operator rounds, the Manager of Operations declared, “There is something in these rounds for everyone.  The newer employees are developing good habits out on the floor and the senior employees are also learning a few good tips in areas they have worked for years.”

Along with the process checks and reliability checks in the rounds, there should be instructions for the troubleshooting steps for operators to follow if they find a piece of equipment malfunctioning. The troubleshooting steps should align with the operator’s skills. This builds a consistent approach across crews and shifts, and alleviates crafts from doing many of the low- skill, two-minute jobs that operators could do.   

There are many software systems on the market that offer services to make operator rounds more efficient. Develop a manual process first. Once you have launched the manual process and the collected data is being used, then consider options for automating the rounds. If the automation is purchased first, the vendor will come on site and ask how you want to conduct the rounds, what will you be looking at, how you will use the data that is collected, what happens when the operator finds an issue, etc. If the rounds are not planned out first, there will be rework and additional programming costs. Although manual rounds will initially limit the quantity of data that will be collected and monitored, it’s a fair trade off to get started. It is a good idea to move toward an automated system that includes handheld devices. Automation allows you to dramatically expand the quantity and volume of data you can collect, so plan for the investment of automation in next year’s budget.

In summary, improving operator rounds can benefit your organization in many ways. Depending on the resources of the organization, FMEAs should be used to develop smart tasks along with the experience of the senior crafts people and operators. Utilizing the senior employees’ knowledge improves employee engagement. To sustain the value of operator rounds, make sure you have a game plan to act on the results. Include troubleshooting steps in the rounds and make sure the operators are qualified to conduct those steps. Automating the rounds with technology is a good idea after they have been developed manually.  Handheld devices coupled with software that links to the maintenance software leads to options for more detailed data collection and reduces the need for paper checklists.  All of these principles of smart operator rounds will support a culture of continuous improvement.  

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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