Having a highly skilled maintenance team is essential to enhancing plant performance and reducing the number of incidents and accidents which occur.
Although highly competent people are employed in their roles, research has shown that there is a considerable gap in non-technical skills among maintenance teams and those in supervisory roles.
In this blog post, Mike Meen - consultant at Add Energy - shares his insights on what the most common skills gaps are among maintenance teams, why these have become so prevalent in the industry and how to plug this disparity in non-technical skills…
What are maintenance teams lacking the most in terms of their skillset?
- Lack of context:
“As part of my involvement in Step-Change-In-Safety, we started to investigate skills gaps from a safety perspective. A lot of organizations were reporting incidents, so we started to wonder why these incidents were happening. A large survey was then carried out a few years ago, which identified that the problem wasn’t so much that teams were technically not competent, the real issue was that they and the organization didn't fully understand the context in which they were working.
- A gap in non-technical skills within tradespeople
“Technical people are spending their whole lives running around fixing equipment because it keeps failing, then wondering why it’s failing. I would say that 80% of maintenance teams are in fact ‘fix on fail’ teams and end up continuously chasing production outage failures.
“A common misconception in the industry is that most mistakes made on-site are caused by a lack of technical skills, however, tradespeople and craftspeople are in fact highly skilled in what they do - otherwise they wouldn't be doing the job. The problem is that there is a gap in their non-technical skills and situational awareness - they’re not aware of the many other jobs and interactions between people and equipment that are occurring around them.
- A gap in non-technical skills within maintenance managers and supervisors
“We identified that supervisors and leadership teams also lacked non-technical skills, and that this was actually a dominant factor in a lot of major incidents. They were asking technical people to carry out tasks that they shouldn't really be doing - not as a deliberate sabotage, but because they don't understand the physical and emotional context in which their tradespeople are working and aren’t situationally aware. The issue here is a breakdown in non technical skills and situational awareness on both sides - management and tradespeople - it works both ways.”
Why do you think this has become such a common issue within the industry?
“When the probability of an incident occurring is very low, corners are cut on some maintenance tasks to save time and money. What this means is that cutting corners and not training people properly becomes a learned behavior and, slowly but surely, it becomes just ‘what we do’. Over time, however, all you're doing is digging deeper into that probability curve until the likelihood of an incident occurring goes up and up until something happens and the ability to recover from it is gone.
“It’s also very easy to become complacent when it comes to employee competencies. If someone in your maintenance team is deemed competent and offered the job when they come out of school, they’re not necessarily going to still be competent by the time they turn 30 and they take on a supervisory position, because they've never actually kept up to date with their trade. Again, the ability to recover when something goes wrong is then washed out completely.
“The roadmap to reducing the amount of incidents is more about broadening knowledge and understanding of the plant and equipment context and interactions, coupled with encouraging these non-technical skills and behaviors among maintenance teams.”
What are non-technical skills and how can they benefit a maintenance team?
“What we mean by non-technical skills is the softer, human skills that allow people to do their jobs well. It isn’t divided by tradespeople working in technical roles and those who work in non-technical roles such as finance or management - you need these non-technical skills at every level.
“Non-technical skills, or NOTECHS, is a concept which came from the aviation industry and has spread globally across all different types of industries, from maritime to petroleum and the oil and gas sector. This framework has become so widely recognized because it’s been identified as a critical barrier to preventing major accident hazards.
“The four key categories of NOTECHS are:
- Leadership and managerial skills
- Situational awareness
- Decision making
Each of these categories are split into core elements and behavior markers to indicate the strength of a person’s non-technical skills and which areas they thrive in.
What are the consequences of not having non-technical skills present in your maintenance team?
“If your team is lacking in non-technical skills, incidents and accidents are ultimately what will happen. On one end of the scale, you'll have loads of defects in your systems which isn’t ideal but doesn’t pose an immediate threat. Next, you’ll get breakdowns in critical pieces of equipment - which can be hidden or more obvious - before these breakdowns escalate into major incidents and international disasters.
“What often causes this escalation is that maintenance teams are unable to cope with a crisis due to a lack of resilience in the organization, and a gap in situational awareness. The probability element suggests that if the job gets done correctly by a good tradesman then you don’t need to worry, but you only need one incident and you have a Piper Alpha, a Chernobyl, a Titanic. All these different incidents are all caused by inappropriate behavior of leadership and supervisors, and a discrepancy in these non-technical skills, not by the technical competence of the individuals.”
What are the benefits of having these non-technical skills present in a maintenance team?
- Less incidents and accidents
“If you provide your employees with a broader understanding of what’s going on, they're far less likely to cause incidents. It’s important to stress that incidents and accidents will happen - you can’t completely eliminate them but you can reduce the probability of failure. This may sound obvious, but most people think that if you do everything by the book, you will get a positive result and that’s not always the case - you get a good result by your team being resilient and high performing.
- A more resilient maintenance team
“A high performing team and positive morale will mean that each individual is very resilient to change and will be able to adapt quickly when they need to. It's not about everybody routinely carrying out their duty as an individual - that is only part of it. It also involves their ability to understand what's going on around them and an ability to react quickly so that if something does go wrong, or somebody leaves, they can fill that role.
- Greater flexibility and higher performance
“If you talk to current military commanders about how they do their job, it's not about marching from A to B in a particular order or getting somebody to do a job without any thought about what's going on at a wider level. It is about giving them the flexibility to actually perform different roles at different times - so they've got their job as an individual, but they can be aware of and tap into all sorts of other jobs as well, creating a stronger team. The same applies for maintenance teams.”
How can teams implement better leadership and supervision in terms of the non-technical skills?
“Practice, practice, practice! Maintenance teams need training and they need screening for their behaviors. People can be really good at their job in a technical sense but if they haven't got the right behavior, they won't make it as a successful supervisor or leader.
“To help maintenance teams overcome this, Add Energy has developed a comprehensive program of 13 courses - the M100 bundle of field maintenance courses. The course comprises an initial online phase to provide context and identify knowledge gaps, followed by a 5 day classroom phase to cover all 13 topics within the program, covering the entire field maintenance program and why it is done.
“As a result, teams will be able to identify key maintenance processes from start to finish and how this applies to each individual’s role, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the risks and consequences within the maintenance arena.”