Myth busting 26: I’ve read the book, now I’m an expert!

Myth busting 26: I’ve read the book, now I’m an expert!

Myth Busting Series 3 Minute Read. Educational institutions realize that we all learn differently and combinations of learning styles will reach most of us. Some of us learn by seeing (reading), some by doing (tactile), some by hearing (aural). Most of us have a bit of each of these and rarely only one is enough. In college and university there is reading as well as assignment and lab work. We need both, so, how do we learn once we leave the academic world?

We learn a lot from reading, but we don’t remember much of it for long. But reading alone is rarely enough to truly get that deep knowledge needed to be competent – we also need practice.Many of us are already aware of this, but if you don’t, you need to appreciate that we all need that combination of learning styles and practice to become proficient. Some feel that they can learn enough, simply from reading the book. We all know these folks too – they were the ones who didn’t work hard at school, crammed for exams and got excellent marks. Academically they are very proficient, but in the real world, where application matters, they can make some serious errors. By the way, many of them forgot just how much they crammed in before those exams and they don’t remember how much they don’t remember today.

Maintenance and reliability are topics rarely taught in university and then, only at the graduate level. Most of the maintenance and reliability “experts” have gained that status through years of application, experience, mistakes and self-teaching. Some have formal graduate level education but not many. There are many certifications available of course. Many of them reflect the individuals’ ability to pass an examination only. In theory they are based on experience but in practice people take courses that are aimed at helping them pass the exam. Those courses act to subvert the good intentions of the certifying bodies to validate and certify an individual’s experience based knowledge. Of course some certifications are little more than commercial offerings with very little value add. How do you know you are getting someone who really knows what he’s doing?

Improvements in maintenance and reliability require application of new methods and processes. The improvement efforts are likely get interrupted and delayed along the path. Let’s use RCM as an example. RCM initiatives can take years – they go well beyond training and few pilot studies and someone needs to sustain the effort’s momentum, or it will falter. That happens often!

If you read one of the books on RCM (maybe my own) you will learn a great deal about how to apply it. There are many practical tips and nothing is omitted. Yet, if you attempt to apply it without any help or mentoring, you will probably make mistakes. It’s not lack of education – its lack of knowledge – that extra level of insight that comes from experience is missing.

Imagine you want to learn to ski. There are many good books with instructions and helpful tips, written by master ski instructors, racers and other expert skiers. After reading the book or books, imagine getting warm clothes on, putting ski boots on, grabbing your poles, stepping into the ski bindings and then just skiing off down the hill. You will be lucky if you get just a few meters. That’s what happened to me. I followed a friend who said he’d show me how to ski. Up we went to the top of a mountain (Sauze D’Oulx, in Italy to be precise). I stumbled getting to the lift, getting onto it, fell getting off, barely got onto my feet when my friend said, “watch what I do and follow”. Off he went. I didn’t see him again for hours! To make it worse, I didn’t know what the color codes for the ski runs meant. Of course I managed to choose a difficult one as my first. It took me hours to get to the bottom on the mountain. If you are a skier, you’ll know that skiing isn’t entirely intuitive – in fact you learn to do exactly what your body says is dangerous in order to ski well. On that rather long and bumpy trip down the mountain I did manage to learn a few things, got good at getting up after a fall, had a number of bruises, a very battered ego and I went straight into the ski school and signed up for lessons. Lessons were in Italian and I didn’t completely understand, but I could watch the movements of the instructor and by the end of that week I was skiing quite well for a beginner. Two years later I was good enough to be on the Ski Patrol. Competence takes patience, time and practice.

When you learn from a book you get a good idea – mental knowledge, but no practice you gain no “feel” for what you are learning. You may find yourself forced into a step by step approach, without a lot of depth on the big picture. That lack of depth leads to questioning of the process steps. You may wonder, “why do we need to write the effects?” or question other steps. Until you’ve worked through them fully, you may not realize the answers. In fact, without the training or support in the early stages, you probably won’t fully appreciate the reasons for all the steps in the process. I’ve seen this a number of times – the result is that the engineer (it is usually an engineer doing this) omits a step or two in the interest of expediency. They think they are saving time and hence money, and they expect the same result as a thorough analysis. They assume that because they know what is being asked, that it doesn’t need to be recorded. I’ve reviewed a number of these analyses.

When you ask why they made decisions that they made, they can’t fully explain them. The information that feeds the decision process is lacking and after doing this for dozens of failure modes, can no longer be remembered.  Wrong decisions result. The analysis isn’t really auditable because it’s missing pieces of the audit trail. The auditor (and one is recommended for analyses of critical systems) should never be expected to second guess the analysts. I could never quite understand what was in their minds sometimes. In quite a few cases, their understanding of the concepts from the book was flawed and they made the same mistakes over and over – very consistently with their misperceptions.

In RCM, there are a few aspects that are not intuitively obvious and not so easily grasped. When you read about them, they make sense, but when you attempt to put into practice – it is often flawed.

So you may be able to do the analysis and it may be largely a good effort, but it will almost certainly have flaws that could have been caught with training, advice from those who have done it before and of course, experience. I’ve reviewed quite a few analyses done this way. None of them has ever been a thorough or correct analysis. While the reference books used were quite good, comprehensive and complete, on their own, they are just not enough.

The RCM process (and others) have been developed over a period of many years and have the benefit of years of application. They have evolved too. If streamlining of the steps would benefit the process, it would have been done long ago. In some cases, more has been added, because the initial process, while good, wasn’t quite thorough enough. The same goes for other methods like Root Cause Failure Analysis and PM Review / Optimization. Even my own framework, the Uptime Pyramid of Excellence in Maintenance Management is challenging to implement without guidance.

The book is a reference to be used in conjunction with proper training. The training qualifies you to participate in analyses or other initiatives. After a few analyses or some implementation experience you’ve gained insights and competence. You will feel more confident and be capable of answering the questions of others who are less familiar than you. You’ll move from qualified to competent. The short cut, low cost “read the book” approach won’t achieve that and it can result in dangerous and costly mistakes. The cost of training and mentoring is small compared with what is usually at stake in your operational environment.

You’ve read the book(s) – that’s great. You’ve learned something new, but you are not yet competent with only the book learning. Counting on that for success with your initiative is risky.

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