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Unleashing the Power of a Human Performance Mindset to Ensure the Next Generation Utility Workforce

Anna Campbell, Colt Stuckey and Thomas Mortimer | June 26, 2023

The ongoing energy transition and the complexities of expanding grid modernization initiatives continue to present operational, resource and regulatory challenges for utilities. Attracting, developing and retaining employees will be the key differentiator for successful organizations. The power industry faces many constraints in this area and implementing new approaches to workforce development remains a top priority. While education and training are essential, and new technologies and tools highly beneficial, the impact of adapting behavioral and cultural norms to focus on the principles of human performance cannot be underestimated in building the power workforce of the future.

The Power of a Human Performance Mindset

In 2021, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) reported that 46% of processed power outage events can be attributed to human/organizational performance issues.

Rather than attack or blame an individual when mistakes occur, human performance practices look holistically at performance issues, accounting for deficiencies and opportunities for improvement in training, communication, policy and procedure to understand why a problem arose and what can be learned from it before it happens again.

A human performance mindset recognizes that people are inherently fallible- everyone makes mistakes, no matter their age, level or experience or career path. And that those mistakes and their consequences – which can be costly and dangerous in a utility project setting – can be mitigated by examining why they happened and discussing with others how similar situations can be prevented in the future.

Encouraging a human performance approach to work empowers employees with open lines of communication, support from leadership and dependable processes that help them make better decisions, achieve positive results and deliver projects safely and efficiently. In short, a human performance mindset across an organization enhances workforce morale and improves operational outcomes.

Human Performance Aligns with the Values of Power Engineers Entering the Workforce

Often, the focus of workforce preparation is on technology, skill requirements and operating procedures. But taking a critical look at how an organization is contributing to developing a culture founded in the principles of Human Performance is necessary step in today’s market. By adopting a Human Performance culture that emphasizes purpose, engagement, collaboration, autonomy and growth opportunities, power utilities can position themselves as attractive employers for the next generation of power engineers. This, in turn, can help close the industry’s talent gap and ensure a sustainable pipeline of skilled professionals who are eager to contribute their expertise to the power utility engineering workforce.

Transitioning to a Human Performance is vital to attracting a new generation of power engineers for the following reasons.

Collaboration and Innovation: A Human Performance culture fosters collaboration across teams and departments, encourages knowledge sharing and welcomes diverse perspectives. This is attractive to a new generation of engineers who thrive in dynamic, team-oriented environments and are eager to contribute their innovative ideas and technological expertise to drive positive change in the energy sector.

Employee Growth and Development: Young professionals seek opportunities for growth and development in their careers. A Human Performance culture focuses on investing in employees’ professional development, offering mentorship programs, training initiatives and opportunities for advancement.

Purpose and Impact: Generation Z is known for seeking meaningful work that aligns with their values and allows them to make a positive impact on society. A Human Performance culture emphasizes the importance of individual contributions, collaboration, and teamwork in achieving organizational goals.

Engagement and Autonomy: The next generation entering the power workforce wants both independence and active involvement. A Human Performance culture encourages employee engagement by providing autonomy, decision-making authority and opportunities for creative problem-solving.

Best Practices for Building and Sustaining a Human Performance Mindset for a New Generation

In today’s complex utility market, developing a cost efficient, comprehensible and sustainable workforce approach is essential. But often, utilities face challenges and pain points centered around three themes:

While these are critical workforce questions to be asked, we encourage leaders to add one more –

How do we establish Human Performance as a cultural anchor to build our workforce?

Culture change may seem a daunting or insurmountable challenge, but starting to shift mindsets and foster certain behaviors can have wide-ranging organizational impact. As an older generation of workers retire, their old ways of meeting errors with retribution will naturally fall by the wayside. This is the perfect opportunity to leverage the following best practices to adopt a more human performance- based culture.

1. Identify Human Performance influencers and systematically integrate them into all developmental activities.

All organizations have a select few employees who live and breathe human performance and demonstrate a genuine and unwavering commitment to safety. They prioritize safety in all aspects of their work and consistently model safe behaviors. They are the employees who show empathy and respect towards all employees. They actively listen to safety concerns, address them promptly and consider the well-being of individuals in their decision-making processes.

Stack your training team with these individuals is key to success. Technical concepts are critical, but building a human performance mindset requires you to establish an army of champions who new employees want to emulate.

2. Weave Human Performance principles in technical and soft skills training.

Establishing a human performance mindset begins on an employee’s first day and must continually be reinforced and practiced through training over a career. To be successful, it’s critical that human performance learning take place in-person. While and organization may view taking an engineer or technician off project work in the field as in efficient or costly, e-learning or online course work is not a good tradeoff to the benefits of in-person discussions when it comes to establishing a human performance culture. Reviewing mistakes and lessons learned in a classroom allows an instructor to gauge the room, to look employees in the eye, and assess who is really understanding the concepts or the severity of the outcomes if repeated. Being together in-person is the best way to determine what employees are getting out of the training and what they are taking away to help them work safer and more efficiently.

Pairing classroom work with real-life, hands-on examples in a non-project setting is an excellent way to safely practice what critical concepts taught in training. It helps reinforce proper procedure and is a great opportunity to understand, in practice, how (and when) to leverage human performance mindset tools. It’s also a perfect way to get real-time critiques and reviews from instructors or more experienced engineers before going out into the field.

3. Make Human Performance fundamentals the TOP skill requirement for current and future leaders.

Ensuring and sustaining a culture of human performance can’t happen without active leadership involvement and advocacy. Best practices for corporate and operational leaders include actively sharing their own stories and experiences of on-the-job mistakes to highlight that careers can recover; employees can continue to advance and that only by sharing can others learn what to avoid or what to do better. Interaction and examples are very impactful and can help establish credibility with employees in the field.

4. Formalize peer review as a critical knowledge management strategy.

A hugely important, but often overlooked component of building a human performance culture is formalizing peer reviews and knowledge transfer opportunities. This applies not only to new employees but experienced engineers as well. While it may be difficult for a senior employee to have his or her work reviewed, it can be very helpful to mitigate mistakes and reinforce the human performance mindset. A person may conceptually know what to do, but overconfidence or short cuts may lead to trouble in execution or implementation. The third-party peer review process also introduces the important “questioning attitude” that is so helpful in a human performance mindset.

In a work environment where employees fear retribution for making honest mistakes, there is little opportunity to learn from past experiences and make adjustments that can improve safety and efficiency. A robust peer review program, sponsored by top leadership addresses this cultural challenge. It normalizes the practice of critical feedback and helps all employees feel comfortable speaking up without the fear of retribution and opens up the lines of communications across all levels.

5. Implement a feedback loop that ensures safety and quality data are continuously used to enhance existing programs and procedures.

There is always room to improve the policies, procedures and checklists that guide engineers and technicians on how to perform field tasks. Incorporating human performance principles into process documentation can serve as guideposts and speedbumps that help employees actively think about safety and how to reduce incidents. Establishing an incident investigation process for supervisors is also helpful to reinforce human performance principles. Documenting steps to determine not just the root of the problem, but what actions or behaviors led to up to it, and procedures to share lessons learned is critical. Written documentation is helpful to mitigate mistakes for all levels of employees. It can prevent experienced engineers and new employees from taking dangerous shortcuts or just simply supply all the proper guidance they may not have previously had.

Sustaining Change for the Future: TRC Can Help

Adopting a human performance mindset and behavioral approach- indeed changing utility organizational culture- is one of the ways the industry will move forward in these challenging times of complex projects, limited resources and workforce constraints. It’s now more important than ever to train and retain talented energy engineers and technicians, and to foster a workplace where they can continuously improve and advance. But it’s equally important to protect safety and minimize errors that can cause dangerous situations or costly delays. Shifting toward a human performance philosophy is essential and TRC can help.

We have built and strive every day to sustain a human performance culture withing our utility field services practice. Our testing and commissioning engineers and technicians undergo extensive training, and we have formalized processes for sharing near misses, lessons learned and engaging in peer review processes. Human performance is also a key offering and central component of our Power Academy training program for utilities. Our state-of-the-art training center in Lancaster, PA is home to a fully equipped mock substation including control house and yard environment that looks and acts just like the real thing. With two large classrooms that leverage interactive technologies, our Center is a controlled setting for structured training, ensuring students become proficient, efficient and consistent in hands-on testing and commissioning, troubleshooting, policies and procedures, safety, QA/QC, planning, communication and risk reduction.

Visit our Power Academy webpage or contact us to learn more about how TRC can help advance a human performance mindset within your organization.

Anna Campbell

Anna Campbell has over 20 years of experience leading learning and development programs in the electric utility industry. She is the Director of Technical Services for TRC where she is responsible for designing training, qualification, and human performance programs. She serves an industry leader in implementing legally defensible qualification systems to ensure that employees have the knowledge and skills required to work. Contact Anna at ACampbell@trccompanies.com.

Thomas Mortimer

Thomas Mortimer, CUSP is a National Quality Supervisor of FSV at TRC. He brings over 25years of experience in the utility business, from meter reading to Project Safety Director. His experience spans Distribution, Transmission, Substation Construction to Safety Program Management. He is committed to working towards a motivated, team-oriented environment to achieve a safe, productive, and profitable workplace by reducing injury/illness rates and workers’ compensation costs.

Colt Stuckey

Colt Stuckey is a Mid-Atlantic Testing and Commissioning Field Supervisor. He brings 8 years of experience in the testing and commissioning field. His experience includes Testing and Commissioning for various clients throughout the Mid-Atlantic region as well as being deeply involved in the Quality/Human Performance and Safety aspects of Field Services.

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