Category Archives: Human factors

Another way to waste compressed air

ON FACTORY compressed air systems it’s good practice to fit air isolation valves like this one below (A) fitted to a stamping press. It shuts off the air when the press is idle but in case of valve failure a bypass (B) is provided. This one is closed now, but moments before the picture was taken we had found it open, defeating the automatic air shut-off.

Just before we moved on I noticed a hose connected to the valve at one end and nothing at the other end. It was the air supply to the pneumatic actuator on the air valve itself, and without it the valve would never close anyway. Somebody had decided to adopt a belt-and-braces approach to wasting air by disconnecting it (C).

The problem of open bypass valves was commonplace and well known, but nobody had thought to establish the root cause. What compelled operators to defeat the system? It turned out that they sometimes needed air on the press to apply the pneumatic brakes on the flywheel after the main motor had been turned off. A simple push-button over-ride will solve that issue.

Attitudes to energy: a radical survey approach

Ended soon

Six years or so ago I was asked to help with an energy awareness and motivation campaign at a major conference and banqueting venue. One of the elements I was responsible for was the initial attitude survey, and I decided to approach it in a slightly unusual way, inspired by two textbooks* that I use in training workshops.

There were a couple of psychological phenomena that I wanted to exploit. One was ‘social proof’, the tendency of individuals to act in a way that they think other people like them would act in the same circumstances; the other was the power of informal friendship groups, which tend to bind people more closely than any formal organisational relationships. Also, given that I was dealing with waiters, porters, cleaners, cooks and security guards, I knew from experience that an on-line survey (fashionable at the time) was not the way to go because many of them would not have been able or willing to respond that way. It had to be paper.

Furthermore I wanted to get away from multiple-choice questions. We all know that the reply we would choose is never offered, and I was smarting from an an earlier staff survey for the Environment Agency in Wales, in which people had bombarded the free-text comment boxes with valuable thoughts. Lots and lots of valuable thoughts. So I did two things. I made the questionnaire one page, with just four open-ended questions, and I asked people to talk through the questions with their friends and come up with group responses if they could (otherwise to report dissenting views). The four questions I asked were:

  • Do you think there is significant energy waste at XXX? If so, what and where, and whose job should it be to reduce it?
  • What other aspects of work are more important than saving energy?
  • If you think energy saving is important, why?
  • Does anyone in the group feel they would benefit from special training to help them work in a more energy-efficient manner? What would they like to know more about?

Normally for an organisation with hundreds of staff you would never do this; you would go mad analysing the replies. But with group responses, you have numerically only a fraction of the material to sift through. You are also getting people to discuss the matter in hand, which in itself starts them on the path to engagement with the subject.

The results in this case were telling. Firstly, the vast majority of replies to the question whose job it should be to reduce energy waste said it was everyone’s. Even more striking was that every reply identified cost as a thing that makes energy important (just over half additionally mentioned the environment). Some suggested that the savings could be spent on bringing in more business, and thereby securing long-term employment. And when it came to what was more important than saving energy, the overwhelming majority said customer service. Not in a million years would I have thought of making ‘customer service’ one of the possible responses in a multiple-choice question but that was most groups mentioned. I’d like to quote one response in particular:

“Customers must receive a professional, efficient friendly service carried out by conscientious, smart, knowledgeable staff, who show pride in their working environment, resulting in customers returning again ”

So there we have it: waiters, porters, cleaners, cooks and security guards thinking like owners and managers. Furthermore, almost everyone believed there was energy waste at work (the only exception, tellingly, came in an individual response from a director). Not surprisingly lighting was seen as the main culprit, though other things got one or two mentions like the behaviour of event set-up crews.

On the strength of the consensus in the replies, I circulated a single-page summary back to all staff. I have no idea which of them had participated in the survey; the important thing was for everyone to see that their colleagues tended to share a common view which, from the overall project perspective, was positive. Social proof – their instinct to conform to perceived norms – would help us to the next step.

* the two textbooks that I recommend my students to read before workshops on motivation are: “Yes: 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion” by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini, which is still in print; and “The Social Psychology of Industry” by J.A.C.Brown. First published in 1954 and now out of print, this is a difficult read which occasionally challenges our modern sensibilities, but it repays the effort.

A new dark age?

Is this the worst energy dashboard ever?

The worst energy dashboard ever?

It’s an anonymised but accurate reconstruction of something I recently saw touted as an example of a ‘visual energy display’ suitable for a reception area. Apart from patently being an advertisement for an equipment supplier — name changed to protect the innocent (guilty?) — the only numerical information in the display is in small type against a background which makes it hard to read. Also, one might ask, “so what?”. There is no context. What proportion was 3.456 kWh? What were we aiming for? What is the trend?

There’s a bigger picture here: in energy reporting generally, system suppliers have descended into “content-lite” bling warfare (why do bar charts now have to bounce into view with a flourish?). And nearly always the displays are just passive and uncritical statements of quantities consumed. Anybody who wants to display energy information graphically should read Stephen Few’s book Information Dashboard Design . It is clear that almost no suppliers of energy monitoring systems have ever done so, but perhaps if their customers did, and became more discerning and demanding, we might see more useful information and less meaningless noise and clutter.

“Look Mum, no hands!”

The striking thing about the plantroom panel switches above is that V-SWITCHHANDthey lack the ‘HAND’ position that is normally provided to allow equipment to run manually, and which are all too frequently found in that condition (right).

If you genuinely need to be able to let people in the plantroom override the automatic control, then at least get your building management system to monitor the switch position to alert you. Otherwise you just end up with stuff running continuously that doesn’t need to.

How to waste energy No. 5: motivation and awareness

People are your greatest asset in the battle against energy efficiency. Here are my top tips for disengaging your workforce:

1. Focus on trivial behaviours like leaving phone chargers plugged in.

2. Position climate change as a key consideration in order to maximise time-wasting and unproductive debate. Remember also that a message of fear will paralyse rather than stimulate action.

3. Over-promise with slogans like “together we can save the planet”.

4. Give away branded mugs, coasters and other merchandise to enrage anyone bothered by waste of resources.

5. Do not canvass people for their opinions or ideas: remember the best instrument of communication is a megaphone.

6. If you do an opinion survey, use on-line techniques to be certain of reaching only those with computer access.

7. Use multiple-choice questions to be sure of missing responses you did not expect (obvious missing options also infuriate and alienate people).

8. Mount a high-profile launch event before you are ready with follow-on activities.

9. Appoint energy champions and leave them to sink or swim.

10. Be slow responding to staff suggestions.

11. If a suggestion does win an award, do not implement it.

12. Give individual cash awards: they can be wonderfully divisive if they are perceived as having gone to an undeserving winner.

13. If payouts are a share of savings, be ready to reduce the share for really successful ideas.

14. Don’t forget everybody loves to be awarded a T-shirt with an energy-saving slogan on it.

15. Have a poster campaign.

Link: Energy management training

Duty-standby rotation

One of my clients, who operates computer data centres, asked his monitoring and targeting software supplier to conduct some pilot analyses using daily data. Cusum analysis of one particular circuit, which was feeding computer-room air cooling (CRAC) units, threw up an interesting observation: energy performance had been toggling between good and bad on the first of every month. This fact had been masked by the weather and variations in the quantity of energy consumed in the equipment racks, but once revealed, it was traced to the fact that they were alternating two banks of CRACs on a monthly cycle. In situations like this, it pays to change the regime so that preference is given to the more energy-efficient plant. This has the secondary advantage that the standby set will have more maintenance life left in it when the lead set fails. Cusum analysis is very good at providing insights like this, which is why I give it prominence in my training courses on monitoring and targeting.

The other place one finds opportunities for instant savings is multi-boiler heating systems, where, too often, the firing sequence is deliberately rotated to give each boiler the lead and even out the wear. Apart from making no sense in terms of risk management (when one fails, all the survivors will be equally clapped-out) it also misses the opportunity to favour the unit with the highest combustion efficiency, and thereby consume less fuel for a given output of useful heat. Anyone unfamiliar with combustion efficiency and the opportunities that it offers can read up in the A to Z guide at

Combustion tuning is a good (and frequently-overlooked) opportunity for nearly all fuel users.

Link: Energy management training