An industrial power plant at sunset

Watchstanding Principles

Consider this…how many decisions are made each day to run a power plant? In the course of a typical day thousands of decisions must be made. There are factors that can negatively influence the decision-making process such as fiscal concerns, stress, fatigue, personal problems, pressure, or alcohol or drug use.

How can we ensure that our employees are making correct and informed decisions at work? If you study the major accidents that have occurred in the Power Industry (and others that require process-based control) it is surprising to learn that most accidents don’t usually involve material failures. Root Cause analysis of most accidents usually point to personnel errors based on a failure of watchstanding principles.

Watchstanding principles are used in every industry that stands a watch including the military, merchant marines, power plants, manufacturing, and airlines that serve as the bedrock on which the program stands. There are seven core watchstanding principles:

  • Procedural Compliance
  • Questioning Attitude
  • Forceful Backup
  • Formality
  • Level of Knowledge
  • Integrity
  • Communication

Procedural Compliance means that every step in a procedure must be understood and performed. There must be no deviations. If there are (and even if they make sense) then the procedure is incorrect and must be changed. Technology and equipment are constantly being updated in the power industry, but power plant personnel are often resistant to changing their habits. What frequently occurs is new equipment is installed and old equipment is retired. With new equipment, new procedures are required because the old procedures no longer match the new equipment. However, the experienced personnel who have operated the power plant the same way for 20 years often feel they know they know how to properly operate the plant and are resistant to adopting new procedures. This can create costly problems down the line. It should be made clear to all personnel that new equipment requires new operating procedures and procedural compliance must be followed.

Having a Questioning Attitude seems obvious but many times the ingrained habits of the highly experienced can breed complacency or ignorance. Has anyone ever gotten an alarm while performing a procedure but didn’t question it because it always occurs? A questioning attitude can be hard to maintain over time. We become complacent because we think we have seen it all or someone says, “That is how we do it here,” or “It has always been that way.” Questions should be encouraged.

Forceful Backup can be difficult at times, especially when a younger or less experienced operator is backing up an older or more experienced operator. People are afraid of looking stupid or offending someone else, so they say nothing. Forceful Backup goes along with a questioning attitude to ensure mistakes aren’t made. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, it is your job to question it and provide forceful backup.

Formality is probably the most misunderstood watchstanding principle. When we think of being formal, we think of the rigid observance of rules of convention or style which is a part of the definition of formality. Watchstanders however are more concerned with the other part of the definition – “a thing that is done to comply with the requirements of regulations or customs.” Standing a formal watch has a certain rhythm and routine to it. A normal watch consists of a good turnover, ensuring you understand the procedures that are being done or will be accomplished, who the watchstanders are, what equipment is available and what is not, the chain of command, and how to communicate effectively all require formality of the watchstanders.

Level of Knowledge is perhaps the most important watchstanding principle because it determines if the others can be followed. Can you have a questioning attitude if you don’t understand what is happening? Can you provide forceful backup in that situation? Can you stand an effective watch if you don’t know the right questions to ask? An effective training program must ensure that each operator has a base level of knowledge to operate the power plant safely and correctly. Training, quizzes, and qualification programs are all part of an effective training program, but they must also include refresher or update training as well. All employees should receive training as a regular part of their jobs, not just the new employees.

Integrity is another misunderstood watchstanding principle. The best definition I have ever heard is, “Doing what is right when no one is looking.” It also means having the guts to say you made a mistake and having an environment where someone is allowed to do so. The plant must foster an attitude that allows people to make honest mistakes and be able to admit to them so the mistake will not happen again.

Communication problems cause more accidents than any other watchstanding principle. Misunderstanding what someone says can have catastrophic effects. All of the other watchstanding principles influence the effectiveness of communication. Formality, procedural compliance, questioning attitude, level of knowledge, etc., play integral parts in effective communication. For instance, if a lead operator tells another operator to “open valve 501,” the operator should know that is the next step because they have a formal method of communicating. They are following the procedure, and the operators understand the system enough to question the step and determine if the order is correct.

Watchstanding principles can be taught, but must also be required. An ineffective turnover should never be allowed. Formal communications must be the norm. Asking questions should be encouraged. If each watchstanding principle is encouraged and practiced, it does not mean that watchstanders won’t still make poor decisions or mistakes. Mistakes still happen. However, following proper watchstanding principles increases the likelihood that mistakes will be less frequent and the lasting effects will be less severe. Effective power plant training in Watchstanding Principles is yet another way to make your plant safer and more efficient.