Smart HMIs and Alarm Management: A Tale of Warning

By John Matura, Manufacturing Solutions Architect, InSource Solutions

“Where you stand depends on where you sit”, commonly known as Miles’ Law was coined by Rufus E. Miles, Jr. He was an assistant secretary under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. It was originally used when describing bureaucratic politics. From a more current perspective it just might offer some insights into organizational change, engagement, and ultimately adoption of change.

In general, people, both as individuals and representatives of groups, see things and form judgments of things from their own perspective. As leaders, we need to recognize this and discipline ourselves to see things from others’ vantage points.  Applying this concept to a technology change in a manufacturing environment could yield significant benefits.

Recently I was at a client site that was in the process of instituting “smart HMIs”.  The goal was to empower operators with more effective tools to recognize and control abnormal conditions. The project used state of the art situational awareness designs to improve operator alarm response.

The existing HMIs had the traditional graphics and colored lights. When a fault occurred the graphical representation of the equipment would flash and an alarm horn would sound. The operators, based on experience, knew which alarms were basically nuisance and which conveyed a condition that should be addressed. To everyone else, there was a lot of apparent confusion and operator complacency.

The process engineers observed this chaos and sought to improve overall process effectiveness by deploying the “smart HMIs”.  They anticipated that the operators would readily accept the new and improved smart HMI alarm system because of the impressive new screen designs and real-time decision-making capability. The new system improved the use of screen real estate, simplified the color schemes, filtered the alarms flooding, and more.  The engineers believed they were eliminating operator complacency and fatigue. From a process engineer perspective, the improved HMI system was the focus.

This is a common mistake.

For any change initiative, input from all stakeholders is a critical element for engagement, acceptance, and ultimately adoption. The process engineers thought that they had this covered by talking to a couple of operators one at a time. But these operators did not represent group concurrence, only individual operator opinion. The remaining stakeholders: Management, Engineers, Supervisors, Operators, and support areas did not participate. And so unfortunately, but predictably, the operators ignored the new HMI alarming system, relying instead on the old, confusing HMIs. They never accepted the need to change a process that they were comfortable with. The new HMIs are in the control room, but not in active use. A waste of both time and money and a validation from the operators’ perspective that the process engineers don’t really understand the process.

There is another way and it involves these 5 steps:

  1. When rolling out a new “smart HMI alarming system” or other important technology, consider using focus groups. In the case above, the focus groups would have established a basis for why the change is needed, gained agreement of the vision, and defined the roadmap for getting there. Also, by having operators understand and agree to the need they become more valuable participants in the design / solution process.
  2. Once the focus group process has been completed, it is advisable to conduct risk analysis workshops with a subset of Management, Supervisors, Operators and representatives from Maintenance, Quality, etc. Potential risks need to be identified and risk reduction methods should be defined, if applicable.
  3. Communicate the opportunity for improvement, establishment of need, potential problems and solutions across the organization with user engagement sessions. This is where the foundation of the solution is presented and revised as appropriate.
    1. Note: An additional recommendation is to engage change agents / influencers to lead and inspire others on the journey. Influential union and hourly associates can be extremely effective in this role. Also, gaining acceptance from vocal resistors goes a long way. They become valuable advocates for the changes. Incorporating stakeholder engagement ensures a sound and effective change management process.
  4. After this, designing and deploying the technical solution is relatively straight forward. The process / people requirements should be integrated and drive the technical solution. A key to the technical engagement is to ensure that there is design simplicity and that it is in alignment with defined requirements / outcomes.
  5. Functional requirements validation and user acceptance testing should also include representatives of all required stakeholders. Identified issues should be resolved before go-live.

The preceding work establishes a sound foundation for the actual implementation of the technical solution. Remember that any technology, in this case a smart HMI and alarming system, must be integrated with the process and the people that interact with that process to ensure adoption. There are no short-cuts to a successful roll-out.

In conclusion, on your next deployment, stop and consider all the stakeholders.  Chances are that there are others out there just as passionate as you (and probably just as right) with a different perspective.  Remember, Mr. Miles. Where you stand certainly depends on where you sit. This realization leads to embraced outcomes that drive real improvement.

Learn more about InSource Alarm Management Systems and the change management needed to make them successful here.