‘Best practices,’ according to who?

While many best practices are based off of decades of experience there are many who don’t follow them for their own reasons.


In my role here at Maverick I’m often asked about best practices, and I’m expected to drive the use of them by our employees. The problem with that is the assumption that best practices are universally accepted as being truly the best, yet I’ve repeatedly run into situations where the best practice I offer up is met with either skepticism or the old “we tried that and it didn’t work here.” The former is easier to address since I can usually offer the names of contacts where it proved itself out.

The latter is much harder to overcome. I spent quite a few years working in the utility power industry, which was very much a mature technology when I started. There were many best practices that had come about through decades of experiences, yet there were power plants that I went into that categorically rejected some of those recommendations. As recently as 10 years ago, I was in a power station where there was no uninterrupted power supply (UPS) to keep the control system live through a power outage. Instead, each of the analog outputs from the distributed control system (DCS) went to an I/P converter that went to a panel-mounted, pneumatic automatic/manual station, which operated the final control device. When I asked why they didn’t simply install a UPS, I was told that UPSs caused more trips than they prevented.

Now, when I started in the industry in the late 1960s, every unit I worked on had a large battery room full of lead acid batteries feeding a static inverter to power the control system and other vital ac users in the event of a loss of general ac. Needless to say I had no answer for their person in charge of the control system. In his mind an industry best practice that had been considered so for at least 40 years was a bad practice, and at that point I’d lost all credibility with him for suggesting its use. This was not the first or last time I’ve run into the “it won’t work here,” but it was the most extreme.

More often the objection to adopting a best practice is that it would require changing what they have been doing for a very long time. This one is usually tied to a belief that their workers simply couldn’t or wouldn’t learn the new practice. The change to High Performance Graphics is a very good example of this objection to an emerging best practice.

“How will we know what’s running if everything is grey?”

“Grey screens are boring to look at all day.”

“Right now we can tell the status of everything with just a glance, we won’t be able to do that with those graphics.”

There are also the costs of re-doing procedures and work instructions, which can be considerable, of re-validating your system if you’re in pharmaceutical/biotech, which can be huge, and require training.

For some of those costs I’ve seen plants get boxed in by other policies and procedures that have nothing to do with getting the most out of the facility or even with reducing costs. I was doing some work in a biotech and they were specifying an older generation of a transmitter that had a higher price than the current generation and a long lead time because they didn’t want to even take a chance that they would have to re-validate their control system. An oil production facility I was doing a project for couldn’t make use of some new technology because there was no payback after their management changed their accounting practices, which placed the control systems in a category that could effectively earn no money. From a corporate accounting viewpoint this made complete sense but from a plant operations viewpoint made no sense at all.

What issues are keeping you from adopting best practices? Which is the stronger deterrent in your company to adopting a best practice, the “it won’t work here” or the “our people can’t learn it” syndrome? Does your management understand the real roadblocks keeping you from implementing a best practice?

This post was written by Bruce Brandt.  Bruce is a Technology Leader at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.

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