John Saysell, head of training at MCP Consulting Group, suggests Ten tips to help technical operators work smarter and ways in which staff development and motivation can be improved and, as a result, output increased.

Many organisations still fail to realise that their process equipment and machine operators are their most valuable assets. Efforts for continuous improvement are often thwarted by lack of training, as well as the understanding of the interests and needs of the operators. Often, they are moved from process to process or line-to-line and are just expected to sit and push buttons with no need to use their own initiative.

Operators who are not formally trained are more likely to suffer an injury or fatality on the job

  1. Reliable operation depends on safety – If equipment is not safe, then it cannot be reliable. I have seen plants where the pressure is on to keep equipment up and running. Corners are cut with overridden guard safety switches and with operators picking up dropped packages and hand stacking whilst a robot is still in operation. All staff must understand that cutting corners put personal health and safety at risk. Isolation procedures were developed for a reason.
  2. Insist on relevant competence-based training – In my experience, when people know why they are required to do certain tasks they are much more likely to carry them out. Formal, ‘hands-on’ training is vital for an operator’s understanding of how their equipment works, the performance standards they are to meet and how to troubleshoot everyday problems. Operators who are not formally trained are more likely to suffer an injury or fatality on the job. Operators need to read the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), see how it is done properly, practice and then be assessed doing the job. Operators then need to be signed off and re-assessed at intervals.
  3. It’s not musical chairs! – Of course, it is necessary to have a few people who can operate more than 1 or 2 machines; these are your team or line leaders. But the theory that one needs to train all operators to run every piece of equipment is misplaced. Asking operators to swap machines on a regular basis makes no real sense. It’s not safe; inexperienced operators and automated machinery do not go well together. This is not to say that sensible job rotation is a bad thing, giving added interest to the working day.
  4. CILT. Cleaning. Inspection. Lubrication – Tightening. Cleaning is not a dirty word – Efficiency is underpinned by clean machinery and a tidy workplace. Operators must be inducted into effective cleaning regimes both before and after work and given the time and products to carry this out. Pride comes from a clean and tidy line. If the operator starts off in a messy and dirty environment, that can set the tone for his or her time on that production line.
  • Inspection – Cleaning is a precursor to Inspection. If you catch potential catastrophic failures during a shutdown or cleaning window, it is much more time efficient to get the spares in and plan the repair rather than have a breakdown when a customer is waiting for product. The inspection includes using all senses to notice, record and notify failures and potential failures.
  • Lubrication – You need the right lubricant – at the right time – and in the right amount. With the correct training, against Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), operators can carry out many lubrication tasks from the maintenance plan. Easy to follow visual tools should be used to distinguish different types of lubricants to ensure the right lube is used for the application. Marking minimum and maximum levels on oil gauges and colour-coding grease nipples are other visual techniques.
  • Tightening – Following the structured Cleaning and Inspection routines, the need to tighten various fasteners and fixings may be identified. Ideally, the tightening will be carried out using a torque wrench calibrated to the right torque on an SOP.
  1. Don’t give up on Root Cause Analysis (RCA) – Some operators and technicians are sceptical about RCA. They see it as a tick box activity to satisfy management. RCA’s bad press is often due to a rushed process with trigger points being set too low. Team leaders should understand the need for good RCA and see it is carried out effectively and followed through. In some organisations, RCAs are numbered. At the end of each month, it is up to the manufacturing manager to explain the status of all RCAs carried out in that period. It’s about having an RCA process.
  2. Bring accuracy to product and size changeover – Many companies find they struggle with product changeover. Machines and operators can only perform accurately when given accurate data. The use of ‘poka-yoke’ (mistake proofing) jigs and templates will go a long way in reducing the cycle time for product change and improve precision.
  3. Get involved in Operator Asset Care (OAC)* – Involving operators in OAC takes their effectiveness to a new level.  OAC is all about production and maintenance working as a team. A lead operator from a food company who had participated in Failure Mode Effects and Criticality Analyses (FMECA) for critical machines on his line, stated that now he understood how the equipment was designed to work and why it was critical to inspect and record key metrics on each machine. When people understand why they need to carry out monitoring and maintenance tasks, they are more likely to carry them out to the right standard.
  4. Benefits come from good data – Complaining long and often about the problem machines are having and expecting management to do something about is a lost cause. To effect change at management level, you need to bring data to the table. Underpin your complaints by driving change through data-supported decisions.
  5. That SOP is there to be followed – Instil into your operators that the SOP is there to be adhered to ensuring the equipment is fit to start, perform a product change or shut down. The checklist was created to ensure that jobs are done in the correct order, to the right standard, maximising safety and productivity.
  6. Respect your operators – Looking after your operators will pay off in terms of job satisfaction and productivity. The best equipment operators enjoy their work, they see the value in what they do, they feel valued and more often than not, they have valuable ideas on how to improve both processes and equipment.

To effect change at management level, you need to bring data to the table

* I believe OAC is best sustained when it is part of a structure and has a road map clearly planned. An Operator Asset Care programme is based on the principle that the people operating production equipment, on a daily/regular basis, are the ones most capable of improving equipment reliability and performance. Their understanding of the process and their feedback can be a valuable resource for the continuous improvement of manufacturing performance and reliability. It can also relieve the burden on technicians who can then spend more time on Continuous Improvement, planned and predictive maintenance activities.

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