Seattle's strategy29 February 2008
Seattle’s local utility is developing a knowledge transfer system to operate and maintain the system, explains its dam safety supervisor, Walter L. Davis
Seattle relies on hydropower produced at dams located in the northwestern US for about 90% of its energy needs. Training and succession planning are important topics at Seattle’s municipally-owned electric utility – Seattle City Light. The utility is using innovative hydro operator training and apprenticeship programmes as part of a strategy to identify, capture and transfer critical system knowledge and skills. Key tools in the strategy include job shadowing, mentoring, skills testing, group learning, and peer reviews to grow the knowledge base necessary to operate and maintain its hydro system.
Knowledge management is a timely topic for Seattle City Light as more than a quarter of the utility’s 1600 workers are eligible or will become eligible to retire in the next five years. Currently, the North American energy sector is competing for a smaller pool of qualified people to meet increasing demands for environmentally responsible power. To meet these challenges, the utility’s top management is making recruiting, training and retaining a qualified workforce a top priority. Seattle City Light’s human resources officer, Jean West, and talent acquisition and development manager, DaVonna Johnson, are leading a utility-wide workforce planning effort (succession planning) and have just completed an employee survey to help identify training needs.
As the pace of technological change accelerates, new skill sets need to be continually developed. At the same time, some specialised system knowledge needs to bridge back many decades. For example, a good understanding of original design and construction helps ensure continued safe operation of aging dams, power tunnels and penstocks, especially when loading conditions or operating requirements change. Successful organisations are those that promote a knowledge-sharing culture and encourage people to be flexible and innovative, discovering ways to support corporate goals within their specialty areas.
Seattle City Light is a department of the municipal government and a number of city-wide efforts are underway to identify, assess, capture and transfer knowledge necessary to ensure the continuity of government services in all sectors. The utility’s knowledge comes from the beliefs and skills that enable it to produce and deliver environmentally responsible, safe, low cost and reliable power but this asset is not just the sum of all 1600 workers’ skills and experiences; it is more than the sum of the parts.
The organisation succeeds only through the co-ordinated efforts of many knowledge areas. The individual’s knowledge is augmented by formal and informal information exchanges, interactions, processes and networks between the many different communities of knowledge that extend both inside and outside the company. For example, Seattle City Light is part of an international dam safety interest group (DSIG) that includes dam owners from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
DSIG sponsors a variety of research projects. Recently, a survey to identify current trends in knowledge transfer within the utility marketplace was circulated by the DSIG Technical Coordinator to all participants. In addition to finding out what utilities are doing and how they are working, the survey was also designed to see if responders clearly understand what knowledge transfer means and that it is the end product of a four-step knowledge management process.
One way of thinking about the four steps of knowledge management was summarised by Bill Christman, hydro engineering manager of Chelan Public Utility District (the second largest non-federal hydro producer in the US). He told a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)?workshop on operating plans and institutional knowledge that the four steps are:
• Identify critical skills and know-how necessary to operate the power plants and electrical system, including potential and existing knowledge gaps. Often the least well understood tasks are most at risk from attrition by a few specialists in that area.
• Assess the consequences of not retaining that knowledge. Is this knowledge necessary? Everything is driven by business needs. It is important to do a risk assessment of the ramifications of losing information and/or getting some of it wrong at each step along the way.
• Capture information and know-how in standard operating procedures, work management systems, after-action reports and other explicit formats so the knowledge can be reused. This makes knowledge transfer and retention easier.
• Transfer the knowledge to new workers or groups of workers though training, mentoring, coaching, group-learning, sharing case histories and doing projects together.
To become effective, new workers need to learn and understand more than just the information contained in job descriptions, manuals, procedures, instructions, and work management systems about how to do their jobs. This is “explicit knowledge” which can be easily codified, embedded in procedures and transferred with reasonable accuracy. They also need to absorb what is called “tacit knowledge”, which is more personal and intuitive and is gained by interacting on the job, sharing experiences, and through mentoring and coaching networks. It is that deep-seated understanding that enables people to effectively work through all the complexities and nuances of their responsibilities.
Tacit knowledge is the kind of personal knowledge that allows people to determine the best course of action based on past experiences and pattern recognition, and being embedded in the person sometimes can be difficult to articulate or express. It is about knowing who to go to within or outside the organisation and what resources are available when a new opportunity or emergency condition arises. Some professional as well as business relationship knowledge may also be tacit.
Transferring tacit knowledge requires working together and sharing experiences. It is about getting some understanding of the mentors’ thinking processes. Drawing out the insight and judgment that key people carry around in their heads – and capturing it in a form that others can use, thereby making it explicit – is an ongoing activity as new techniques and business processes evolve.
When workers begin to internalise the newly shared explicit knowledge, they, in turn, use it to develop fresh tacit understanding and knowledge, and the cycle repeats. Knowledge transfer is not a one-on-one mapping or download of one group’s understandings to another group. The key is how the new group uses the transferred knowledge to develop its own capabilities.
Hydro Operator Training
Hydro operators play a critical role in the safe operation and maintenance of Seattle City Light’s power plants and dams. Sometimes a single operator watches over several billion dollars worth of generating capacity. The first step in training new operators is to hire motivated people with the right background and aptitude. Applicants are screened for a two-year degree in the electrical vocational trades or prior operating experience. A written test is administered and interviews focusing on interpersonal and team skills are conducted. The successful candidates then undergo a multi-faceted training programme.
New operators have two years to complete a self-taught 36-unit training course that Seattle City Light has acquired from Los Angeles Power and Water. Much of this study is done after work hours. The trainees also learn by job shadowing the senior operators and by observing and doing various tasks under direct supervision. The senior operators also review and share information from the many operating manuals and maintenance procedures. This not only provides an opportunity for the new people to learn, but also helps identify gaps in procedures that need to be documented. So the junior operators work with the senior operators for two years and learn by doing. Along the way they have to successfully demonstrate benchmark tasks for each training unit to the chief operator.
At the end of the two years there is a two-day final exam. Part One is a question and answer session plus hands-on demonstrations before a four-person panel of experienced workers. The next day, the trainees are asked to respond to a series of simulated emergency conditions. Gary Baird, chief operator at Seattle City Light’s 1050MW Boundary hydroelectric project, says that, with all the changes in technology, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with writing new benchmarks for the testing and training. He likens human learning to planting a garden: “You have to have the right environment, plenty of sunshine, nutrients and water, and allow enough time to let it happen. It’s not a computer download at 5 gigs a second!”
Seattle City Light’s apprenticeship programme is successful at producing a high percentage of qualified workers in the skilled trades, including hydro machinists and electrical constructors for hydro plants. The desired outcome of the programme is to develop people who can safely and effectively do the job.
The programme starts with careful selection of the candidates and the journey level workers to work with over a four-year period. The two groups must be complementary and therefore understand the importance of receiving and transferring knowledge. One of the biggest challenges the new group has in becoming confident, qualified workers is to understand who to go to and how to send and receive critical information. The best way to transfer this kind of knowledge is to have the new group work together on projects with the seasoned people so they learn how all the written and unwritten protocols work.
Apprentices are also rotated through different parts of the organisation to gain an appreciation of the interdependence and interconnectedness of the utility’s knowledge base. For example, the generation electrical constructors spend 160 hours in the electrical and mechanical engineering office. It is important not just to learn the technical skills of their trade, but also who to go to about special problems, or in an emergency. In addition to the hands-on instruction at work, the apprentices attend college-level academic instruction on their own time. The education and training programme works in six month cycles, with about 10 to 15 new skills introduced each time. Written exams and work demonstrations are used to test for competencies in the new skills.
Seattle City Light’s apprenticeship programme manager, Nettie Dokes, says: “You can read fifty books on how to swing a golf club, but the hand-eye coordination, the way you hold your head, and all the other tacit skills you need are learned only if you are highly motivated and persistent, have good trainers, mentors and coaches, and are provided with multiple opportunities for individual and group-learning and lots of practice.”
She also says that it is important to remember that the programme is all about training for the future, but you have to keep the past and the present in mind too. The new apprentices need to learn the latest technology, but they may be working and learning with people from a different technological era.
Dam Safety Peer Reviews
Seattle City Light retains a panel of experts through the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) to conduct a best practice peer review of its dam safety programme. The review team evaluates the dam safety programme’s mission, objectives, policies and procedures, and looks at how well they are being followed. It also makes recommendations to help improve the effectiveness of the programme. These have been helpful in identifying how institutional knowledge could be preserved by capturing, organising and sharing historical design and construction information. As a result, dam safety information, from original design reports to post earthquake inspection procedures, is now organised, electronically stored and accessible on a common computer network.
As new people join the utility at all levels, one of the ways dam safety knowledge and information is disseminated is by conducting potential failure mode analysis workshops for each dam using a format developed, and required, by FERC.
A broad cross-section of personnel participates in these workshops, reviewing original design and construction information and identifying and categorising dam safety issues. This provides an opportunity to capture dam safety knowledge that is only resident with the on-site staff and at the same time raise awareness of the importance of dam safety across the organisation. It is important to get both experienced and new people to participate in the workshops. By participating, each discipline gets a better idea of how its work contributes to the continued safe operation of the dams. A summary report documents lessons learned and knowledge gained.
Capturing and Sharing Safety Expertise
Expert system technology is a method that has been used at other utilities to capture dam safety expertise for future use. Thomas A. Kelly, P.E. was one of the experts on Seattle City Light’s dam safety peer review panel. For many years he was a senior civil engineer at Southern California Edison. The 12 August, 1988 issue of the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article about a two-year, US$300,000 (1988 prices) effort to capture his knowledge of the utility’s dams in an expert system.
One of the lessons learned in this general effort to capture information and, therefore, knowledge is that many experts are unable to articulate the approach that they use to make decisions because they may not consciously understand all the inputs, experiences and pattern recognition they use. When questioned about how they made a particular decision, they responded with a description of their most recent perception of the process, which may not completely capture the procedure that they actually used. This can make it difficult for the knowledge engineers to develop meaningful algorithms to replicate the expert’s decision-making capability. Expert system technology is advancing and may become a more widely used tool, which was a possibility explored in the April 2001 issue of IWP&DC.
One important way to develop and maintain critical knowledge is participation in industry-wide practice communities. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is a participant in the DSIG?referenced above. OPG’s civil engineering manager, Peter Chan, holds annual technical workshops with both in-house and invited speakers to help build and transfer knowledge.
He says that training and networking opportunities are more important today than ever before. In the past, it was common to be able to hire entry level engineers with the expectation that they would work their way into their full capabilities over many years. Today, when the average tenure of employees can be shorter, it is important to help people reach their full potential in a much shorter time. The importance of workshops, professional organisations and trade conventions in helping with knowledge acquisition has never been greater, especially for newer workers.
Seattle City Light supports participation by staff in professional organisations like the US Society on Dams (USSD). The organisation’s next annual conference will be in Portland, Oregon, on 28 April-2 May and the theme is “The Sustainability of Experience: Investing in the Human Factor”. In addition to the usual technical tracks, the event will address the challenges of training future leaders.
Topics at the conference will include recruiting, training, mentoring, and transferring knowledge and experience in a way that leads to sound professional judgment. Panel discussions between seasoned and newer professionals around what’s working well and what’s challenging them are also part of the programme. A one-day workshop on dam failure/incident case histories is also planned.
|Talking of Training|
Experience among some utilities of training and, in particular. transfer of knowledge was discussed in a series of panels at the Waterpower XV conference last year. Delegates heard representatives from Electricite de France (EDF), Manitoba Hydro and a consultant from American Electric Power Co address the issues and briefly outline their different approaches to the strategic challenge.