“Pencil Whipping.” It’s not as fun as it sounds.
In fact, in the right industry, under the right circumstances, with budgets, infrastructure, and even lives at stake – this practice can lead to devastating results.
Pencil whipping is a phrase used in a work context, typically one with a lot of bureaucracy. It’s a quippy way to say someone did their job, technically, but was the mission really met? The box was checked, but was the problem solved? In the context of electrical substation maintenance, this issue is alive and, unfortunately, quite prevalent for both commercial and utility companies.
Human Error or Overt Oversight?
The current method for assessing the health of an electrical grid is for a utility worker to go to the site with a handheld thermal camera, point it at the transformer, and take a moment-in-time analysis to determine if anything is wrong.
This is not a weekly or monthly practice. Standard maintenance means this happens annually or semi-annually only if your company chooses to hire a utility employee or maintenance company to perform the work.
The purpose of taking infrared temperature readings with a handheld thermal camera is to assess the health of the equipment in the electrical substation. This is part of how you protect your investment in the equipment housed at the substation. Given that this is a by-hand measurement, we all understand that human error is part of reality and may be unavoidable.
But what if the “error” is the result of deliberate action or, more likely, the result of inaction? In that case, the health assessment we are trying to make becomes a sham. What’s happening here? The box on liability is getting checked, the numbers are within range, but is this kind of snapshot analysis reliable?
From time to time workers and supervisors alike write down favorable results based on equipment measurements that were never made. This is a blatant example of pencil whipping. But this system of maintenance also makes it easy for less overt oversights to occur, such as a rushed analysis due to an overburdened manual workforce or equipment degradation that is missed because there is no way to compare data over meaningful periods of time.
The Cost of Cutting Corners
Substation equipment failure due to unforeseen circumstances, in spite of faithfully adhering to standard practices, imposes high enough costs already. But imagine having to absorb the unnecessary cost of time, energy and resources addressing not only the loss of equipment and operation, but also the public blowback from what will be viewed as laziness/oversight.
The public and the marketplace will both see the existence of the pencil whipping practice, even if “it only happened once”, as a leadership failure. Leadership failure assessments always rise to the top and diffuse into the brand. The cost to repair the brand and turn the tide on the negative press of being careless and neglectful (just look at the recent example of PG&E) may far exceed the cost of prevention.
Replace the Worker or Fix the System?
Workers trying to meet goals for incentives, being unwilling to put forth an honest effort, or overburdened by a heavy workload are some of the many reasons that pencil whipping takes place. Still, no matter the cause, it is a practice that all businesses should be bold enough to explore, call out, and take steps to stop.
In the case of electrical grid maintenance, we need to take an honest look at the current system in place for spotting issues and preventing degradation. The system may be more susceptible to practices of neglect and oversight – and this is a problem that goes far deeper than utility workers and check boxes.