From Paper to Pixels: Online O&M Manuals Replace 3-Ring Binders

February 2014, Vol. 241 No. 2

Chris LeBlanc, Director of Gas Operations, Unitil Service Corporation

The Internet has affected many aspects of gas pipeline operations, from tracking operator qualification credentials to keeping up to date with pipeline regulations. Now one company is using the Internet to distribute and manage its operations and maintenance (O&M) manual as required by 49 CFR Part 192.605. Gone are the days of large, three-ring binders and all the associated printing and distribution headaches.

In my role as director of gas operations at Unitil Service Corporation, the difficulties of finding critical information quickly and easily became increasingly apparent to me as the company manuals increased in size and complexity.

Our heavy reliance on paper procedural and reference documentation, with all the inherent issues (too much paper, difficulty in finding required information quickly, documentation that was out-of-date, different users using different versions, and no audit trail for tracking changes, etc.) was no longer viable.

Then, in December 2008, Unitil acquired Northern Utilities, a gas distribution company that operated in Maine and New Hampshire. Prior to this acquisition, Unitil was primarily an electric distribution company with some small gas assets in its Fitchburg, MA territory (15,000 customers in six towns with 260 miles of main). With the acquisition of NU, Unitil grew overnight to about 75,000 customers, 1,300 miles of distribution main, and an 87-mile FERC jurisdictional transmission company.

Early on during the integration process, Unitil learned that each of the three distribution companies (NU-ME, NU-NH & FGE) operated very differently, and that aligning all of the O&M and construction practices were critically important for the success of the integration.

Prior to the acquisition of the Fitchburg operation, Unitil relied on a paper manual which was used by about 15 Unitil employees and one contracting crew. Even with this small number of users, Unitil management often found it difficult to coordinate yearly reviews and updates. With the acquisition of NU, the O&M user list was expanded to more than 100 in-house employees 30 contracting crews. Unitil management quickly realized that (a) this would be unmanageable using the old paper documentation solution and (b) the situation placed the company at risk from a regulatory standpoint.
iPad view of joining procedure.
Management decided to enlist ViaData LP, publishers of WinDOT, the Pipeline Safety Encyclopedia, to help convert all paper documentation, including that from the newly acquired system, to an online manual. This provided quick and easy access to the most up-to-date procedures and other reference information, as well as being an excellent audit tool for tracking changes.

ViaData’s task was not a trivial one. Hundreds of pages of old paper documentation had to be reviewed for accuracy and completeness, verified against the most current standards and regulations, and then sorted into appropriate topics and converted to online help in a format that would be readily available to all of Unitil’s users. A pdf was also required that matched all of the final approved information so that regulators could have a hardcopy version.

The online manual is used by all field technicians, contractors, engineers, distribution managers and supervisors, as well as compliance and quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) personnel. Each group has access to the documentation in the manual, but uses it differently.

For example, our compliance group relies heavily on the link from the regulation to the procedure, as it evaluates proposed code and procedure changes, and prepares for regulatory audits. Technicians have direct access to all procedures and specific equipment manuals to reference as they perform maintenance on the system without having to rely on cumbersome manuals.

In most companies, documentation and online help design and development is not one of the core competencies. David Bull, a ViaData partner, is only too aware of this.

“At ViaData, documentation and online help design and development are the core business,” Bull said, adding many companies are now finding it very beneficial to convert all of their company-specific procedures and reference information to online format. “Online updating and dissemination is far easier than with printed documentation, given both the increasing number and complexity of standards and regulations and the pace of change of technology.”

Moving to online help is a no-brainer: it is essentially easier and faster in accessing critical information without the need to produce anything on paper or update pages in a binder. The process also allows users to quickly search for and link to specific topics

People are increasingly accustomed to accessing the information they need online immediately through laptops, iPads, tablets, and smartphones. Time is money and using online help saves a great amount of time and frustration. Additionally, this method allows both staff and management to know that the information they are using is the most current version, and not outdated, inaccurate or incomplete. This can be a critical factor not only in saving time but also risk management, given that referencing poor information can cause accidents or costly re-work.

Desktop view of installation instructions and manual glossary.

Unitil’s online manual has been very successful by providing better access to material and management does not have to worry about field personnel using outdated procedures.

Also, the procedures can be more effective because with an electronic manual and advanced search tool, length is not an issue when developing procedures. With a paper manual a procedure is only as effective as an end user’s ability to find it. At Unitil, as procedures got more detailed and manuals got longer, it became more difficult for the average user to find needed information. As a result, the company had to weigh procedure length vs. manageability for the average user. This is no longer an issue.

Unitil’s second-generation manuals implemented in 2013 are presented in multiscreen format, viewable on most mobile devices. This has allowed us to streamline the technology we are deploying to the field, based on job functions. For example, we have technicians who are performing regulatory-required inspections using tablets for capturing the inspection results. In the past, these employees were issued laptops for access to the O&M manual and given tablets for performing inspections. Now, we are transitioning to tablets alone, thus reducing costs.

Positive Affect On Regulators
As a regulated gas pipeline operator, Unitil undergoes regulatory audits to ensure compliance with ever-changing government regulations. Preparing for such an audit can be time-consuming as well as stressful. One way ViaData simplifies this is by providing an online audit trail with links to old and new information.

This has proved popular with the regulatory agencies. Regulators are extremely positive regarding the online manual and the enhancements. They have access to the online version, and it has made the inspection process – in both field and office – more efficient and effective. All of our field crews are routinely asked to identify procedures in the field.

Creating Usable Documentation

The key to a successful online manual is creating usable documentation. One big issue that companies often struggle with is creating the actual content of procedures and reference documentation. The people who are best at a particular procedure (the subject matter experts:) are not necessarily well-trained at capturing/documenting that procedure – and they often lack the extra time to devote to documentation.

When a company decides to capture its best practices, ViaData can work with the subject matter experts to simplify the process and ensure the final documentation is accurate, complete and usable.

What Lies Ahead?
“There are ongoing challenges to be addressed. With the proliferation of tablets and smart phones, and the demand for mobile viewing of data, there are always changes occurring in the online help design and development field,” Bull said.

“Security requirements are always evolving and are a critical factor in the online systems. Video is becoming increasingly popular for demonstrating and explaining procedural functions,” he said.

Unitil is at the leading edge of this process, expanding its manual’s content by linking to manufacturer’s procedures, photographs and diagrams. The company Safety Manual, Service Technician Handbook and welding procedures are all available online. Procedures in the O&M identify and link directly to OQ-covered tasks.

This increased accessibility to O&M procedures creates a more informed workforce, enhancing Unitil’s efforts in delivering natural gas safely and reliably.

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