Who Will Do Your Next Shutdown?

I recently visited a coal-fired base load power plant where 65% of the maintenance workforce will retire in the next two years! That’s right. According to a non-scientific poll, in only two short years all the senior technicians and lead men in both electrical and mechanical will be fishing, playing golf and enjoying grandchildren.

Plants and factories all over the U.S. are facing this demographic trend. Demographers liken the population curve represented by the post-World War II baby boomers to a graph that looks like a python swallowing a pig. After the war years of low birth rates the GIs returned and wanted normal lives with babies, cars and houses with picket fences. This huge group of babies has grown up and is starting to retire. Retirements started when the first baby boomer hit 65 in 2011. The last of the baby boomers will be 65 in 2029. This is not a new problem and it won’t end any time soon.

Unit 1 of the power plant was completed in 1972. Some of the construction workers joined the startup crew as permanent employees and now are completing 35+ years of service with the power plant. They’ve been through construction and dozens of shutdowns to every part of the plant. They may have only worked in that one location and they are expert’s experts. As a result, they have needed little documentation and little oversight.

As these men (overwhelmingly they are men) retire we must capture as much of their on-the-ground knowledge as we can. The changing of the guard also provides great advantages. With new, younger workers comes more experimentation, more questioning of existing traditions and the ability to absorb more technology. The picture is not entirely dark.

The kind of knowledge and skills leaving with the boomers are the specific idiosyncratic facts of life that are not written down, but when they are needed they make those jobs quicker, safer or even possible. They are also judgments and opinions formed on the forge of reality and tempered by the heat treatment of time.

A three-step approach can help make sure new leaders are ready to step in when your long-time experts retire.

Step 1 – Identify candidates for leadership roles

Review the people available and identify potential candidates for shutdown leadership roles. You are looking for people with experience in these areas:

  • Background in trades, maintenance planning/scheduling, or engineering
  • Experience in parts (supply chain), safety, operations in your plant or a similar one
  • Experience in shop floor leadership
  • Experience managing projects

Step 2 – Train candidates for leadership roles

When preparing people for the new roles, be conscious of how people learn complex tasks. According to learning experts at the Life Cycle Institute, only 10% of learning takes place in a classroom setting. Most of the learning takes place when one applies what one learned in a class. Roughly speaking, here’s what training of your new leaders should look like:

  • 10% of the time should be spent in formal training
  • 20% of the time should be spent working the job with hands-on coaching
  • 70% of the time should be spent working the job with consistent feedback

Here are the training areas to include to build general competency

  • Basic management training
  • Basic management systems training (EAM, CMMS, PMS, MS OFFICE)
  • Basic shutdown training
  • Specific role training (such as maintenance purchasing or Management of Change)
  • Shadow an experienced person

Once your new leaders have been trained, have them practice the job with plenty of coaching

  • Work the shutdown job with a coach watching the entire process
  • Audit the shutdown of another plant. Being an auditor is the best way to understand shutdown strengths and weaknesses.
  • Practice capturing lessons learned in a usable format

Step 3 – Provide new leaders working the job with plenty of consistent feedback

Your new leaders will continue to learn on the job. Have them report results to a coach and discuss issues. Finally, make sure they are tracking KPIs, reporting results, and using the results of each shutdown to make the next one even better.

The clock is ticking. Do this now! 

© Life Cycle Engineering

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