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Coal, Cost and Culture: “Dave” the Control Room Operator

World Coal,

Yesterday I spoke at a business conference in Phoenix about the “High Cost of Mixed Messages” sent by management teams. Included in my presentation was a story about “Dave”, the control room operator; the names were changed to protect the innocent...

"Dave" was a newly hired control room operator. After passing the classroom/on-line training, Dave moved to the next phase of training – several weeks of hands-on training in the plant with “John” and “Mike”, two senior operators who had been operators for over 20 years. As is typical in plants everywhere, long-time control room operators often believe that they know best how to run the plant. John and Mike were no different. They both shared their unique ways of correcting certain conditions and/or maximizing throughput with Dave. As a result, Dave learned both men’s ways of running the plant.

Finally, Dave was allowed to run the plant by himself on shift and things went well for several weeks. During his time on shift, he thought about the different techniques he had learned from John and Mike and began thinking about how he might tweek them to get an even better result for the plant. One day, an out of control condition occurred while Dave was on shift. Dave took action to correct the problem using a slightly different method than John or Mike had shown him, believing that he had been given the authority to do so based on the way he had been trained. Unfortunately, Dave’s method of correcting the problem caused equipment damage and extended production loss.

Management wrote Dave up for his actions. Did management do the right thing? Some would say that Dave was responsible and should have been reprimanded - I say no, that it was management's fault for not insisting on a standard for certain plant procedures. Let’s examine management’s role in this downtime event more closely...

1. Day To Day Operations:

  • Management knew about the differences in the way the operators ran the plant – they could usually guess who was on shift when tonnage was high. This particular management team regarded the differences in operators as a good thing.
  • Management did not strive for a consistent control/operating plan and consistent response plans to correct out-of-control conditions, which introduced process variation and an increased chances for plant upsets and extended downtime losses.

2. Plant Training Program:

  • Management knew that new hires were exposed to more than one way to run the plant during training.
  • Management had designed and/or approved the method of training for the plant, not the operators. By approving this training strategy, management gave "permission by omission" for the operators to use their discretion when running the plant.
  • The outcome generated by that training program was ultimately their responsibility.

Dave was doing what he was trained to do - make his own decisions about running the plant. The greatest damage caused by writing Dave up for his actions was the terrible mixed message sent to Dave and the workforce - “we will write you up for something you have been trained to do”.

  • How much trust was lost between management and the workforce as a result of this action?
  • How long would it take to restore that trust? A very long time even if management took intentional actions to rebuild it.
  • How many problems in the plant would be hidden by the workforce as a result of this action?
  • How much would those problems cost in the form of tonnage losses and excess costs?

Instead of writing Dave up for the choice he made, management should have:

  • Immediately examined the training program.
  • Found the gaps that promoted inconsistent actions.
  • Developed new procedures that would minimize variation.
  • Retrain all the operators on the revised procedures.
  • Set new expectations for consistent operating practices.

Thought for the month: Avoiding mixed messages to the workforce is not about job title, area of responsibility or even a particular industry. It is about people with management authority taking responsibility for what they already have authority over.

Author: Kay Sever CMC, CQIA, Sustainable Improvement Consultant and Coach. Kay Sever is a leader in sustainable improvement for mines and plants. She combines over 30 years of mining experience with a common sense approach to improvement that raises awareness about lost opportunity and hidden barriers that prevent improvement success. Her new management training program, The Change Revelation, shows management teams how to remove the barriers that are holding them back.

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