Decade in Review: Education and User Empowerment

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

My column in the January issue announced the milestone 10-year anniversary of Practicing Oil Analysis magazine. We are very proud of the huge body of work that has been featured on its pages over the years. Yet for most of us who have seen this decade fly by with great speed, it feels like we're just warming up.

Still, it's good to occasionally pause, step back and take a look at the road we've traveled. We'll use my editorial column to do just that throughout 2008, starting by reviewing important achievements in education and user empowerment.



The Power of Empowerment
Noria Corporation opened its doors in January 1998 as a training organization in oil analysis. To our amazement, there seemed to be a nearly endless supply of students interested in gaining knowledge in this thin segment of industry.

As oil analysis specialists, we had much to offer; and in the past 10 years, we've given hundreds of seminars and graduated thousands of students. However, we've also learned much from these students, especially details on the purpose for their hunger for knowledge in oil analysis.

For starters, we're aware that people quickly accepted the logic that oil was the life blood of their machines. And, just like human medicine, they also understood that analyzing the oil equated to a pathological study of machine health and disease. We've all seen how human lives are spared when early alerts to threatening ailments are found, enabling corrective measures to be taken.

Since the early 1960s, oil analysis has been routinely applied to in-service lubricants of operating machinery. The field has benefited from many advances in technologies and procedures along the way. We've also learned that success seems to depend heavily on acquiring key skills. Imagine trying to perform the job of a pathologist without attending medical school.

Elevating the Corporate IQ
Perhaps you've heard that in the knowledge economy, effective use of human capital largely determines whether a company will achieve and sustain a competitive edge. An essential element is elevating the corporate IQ by systematic and continuous knowledge transfer to its employees.

It stands to reason that when you teach people how and why things work, they have greater pride in their profession and take ownership in their jobs. No doubt that a skillful and motivated carpenter with poor-quality tools will easily outperform an average carpenter with the very best tools. Even in maintenance, workforce education and ownership are important competitive differentiators.

Except for highly authoritarian (command-driven) cultures, education and ownership translate to employee empowerment. Empowerment gives workers their brains back. Without empowerment, they amount to little more than arms and legs - robotic and mechanical.

Education and empowerment super-charge the brain and make it a productive business tool. The high cost of labor in today's modern economies leaves little room for poor performance and mediocre productivity. Human capital must morph into intellectual capital.

Oil Analysis Knowledge Workers
Most large producers today view oil analysis skills as a necessary maintenance core competency. Gone are the days when companies relied entirely on outside laboratories and service organizations. Today, the effort is more collaborative and interactive.


Some companies use dedicated oil analysis technicians, while others prefer to integrate the skills across the array of maintenance technologies. For instance, a common tripartite skill set would include vibration, thermography and oil analysis.

When I began giving oil analysis seminars in the early 1990s, it seemed most of the knowledge I was trying to convey blew over the heads of my audience. That still happens, but more typically, especially at our public seminars, the students have already had some training or are partially self-taught.

Today's audiences are more serious and purposeful. One common reason people seek oil analysis training is to develop data interpretation skills. Another reason is strategy for program design and deployment. The business case for oil analysis has never been more solid.

Certification as an Investment
Quality training can be costly and, therefore, it is frequently scrutinized as an expense item. Companies want the biggest bang for their training buck. Certification is one way to enhance value from training. Professional organizations such as the International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML) and the Society for Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) provide an effective report card for both training organizations and trainees alike.

These certification programs in oil analysis made their debut this past decade and have since surged in popularity. Certification today is offered in more than 10 languages in scores of countries around the world.

That said, we are all aware that knowledge from training does not ensure effective execution. Empowerment and metrics have helped close the knowing-doing gap. Also important is an oil analysis master plan that is both supported by management and endowed with an adequate budget.

Thankfully, success stories abound from those who have already taken the journey. This lends confidence to oil analysis newbies who worry about the road ahead.

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About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...