From Our Perspective: The Importance Of Cognitive Bandwidth

ken bannister thumb thumb thumbAs I recently watched a commercial for a Broadway-style production of I Love Lucy, I began to chuckle at the thought of my favorite episode of that iconic 1950s-era TV show. “Job Switching” featured Lucy and Ethel (played by comediennes Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance) trying desperately to succeed at their jobs in a chocolate factory. Their task was to take chocolates off a conveyor belt, wrap them and put them back on the belt. Simple, yes? Not if you were Lucy Ricardo!

As the belt moved ever faster, the two women struggled to keep up. They didn’t have a chance, though, as they were unaccustomed to the work and speed of the equipment. To compensate, they resorted to various (funny) ways to take care of the unwrapped chocolates. Alas, Lucy and Ethel were untrained and unprepared for a work situation that literally overloaded their ability to cope. (Enjoy the chocolate factory scene yourself by calling it up through your Web search engine.) 

Sadly, I’m often reminded, via reports of and experience with asset failures, of similar incidences in the real world: A series of events or communications will have overloaded a maintainer’s or operator’s ability to cope, surpassing the limits of his/her cognitive bandwidth. This scenario is akin to asking an individual who only has a dial-up modem to make decisions and perform as if he/she is working with a 4G, high-speed Internet connection.

As the maintenance industry loses its highly experienced workforce through attrition and retirement over the next few years, we can’t expect a broken vocational-educational and apprenticeship-training system to replace them at the same quality level. Thus, we must prepare to work with personnel that have less cognitive bandwidth than we’ve been accustomed to. Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do. In fact, much of the problem lies in the way job tasks are written—especially PM job tasks. 

Many instructions don’t contain adequate information, and many people don’t have enough experience or bandwidth-knowledge to carry out an intended task. For example, a typical call to “lubricate as necessary” is highly subjective—and often will result in no action being taken. If a job task is to be effective, it must be immediately actionable and written in an objective manner spelling out, in this case, exactly what to lubricate, when to lubricate and what to lubricant with. This approach eliminates the “crystal ball” decision-making requirement that can tax the cognitive bandwidth of even very knowledgeable and skilled personnel.

Another area of change involves effectivelyplanning and scheduling work for maintainers—and not allowing them to plan and schedule their own work. Otherwise, a maintainer is forced to logistically prepare for the job by choosing and obtaining parts and tools, setting up a safety plan, communicating for access to the job, etc., when his/her only job is to perform the repair. Worse yet is when maintainers are expected to autonomously choose and prioritize their own work from a pile of work orders with no direction or information to make that choice and no planning and scheduling training. That’s a difficult task for the most experienced among us.

The bottom line is that a little change in thinking up front can prevent many types of “Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory” workforce problems in the future! Good Luck! LMT

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