Rely on an Ombudsman for a Smoother Project

Working with someone who speaks the operator’s language will avoid problems, according to Dirk Willard, in this month's Field Notes column.

By Dirk Willard, senior editor

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Dean’s remarks put the superintendent on edge, though he laughed unwillingly. He and Dean were old friends so there was no lasting pain inflicted. It was Dean’s way of expressing what others could not, or would not, that the schedule was too tight! The remark was delivered in a matter-of-fact tone with a barb of sarcasm. Everyone in the conference room chuckled under their breath.

“Deano,” as we were fond of calling him, had wit and charm; he was respected by the union, the managers and engineers. He could level an engineer with a question directed at some unseen detail left undone or prod an operator who, in his words, did something befitting of a dimwit. It was his world. In the army, he’d be the top sergeant everyone loved and from whom they wanted approval. In our world, he was there to guide us, everyone, through a smooth transition before he retired.

A person in this position is called an ombudsman. The term is old Norse. Sweden adopted it for someone who looks after the rights of citizens in 1809. So, why should every brownfield project have one?

Here’s one very compelling reason: you never worked as an operator! An experienced engineer looks at a control screen and sees pumps and valves and instruments monitoring a process. The ombudsman hears noisy alarms — more than he likes; he sees whirling agitator graphics some idiot engineer — maybe you — added because he, or you, thought they were cool; he sees the worried look on the faces of foremen who are filling out endless quality assurance forms that need simplifying. In other words, a good ombudsman can help you turn your dream of a smoothly-running process into a reality — if you listen to him.

Unlike a greenfield site, in which everything is new and shiny, at least on the first day, brownfield sites are old and broken-down. You only see your new process. The ombudsman sees your new equipment and how it must fit with what exists. He can help you during the design phase through commissioning, finding tie-ins, locating equipment for easier operator access, suggesting ways to streamline work, sometimes even finding equipment buried in warehouses or, in the field, buried under inches of insulation.

Another difference between a green-site and brown-site is your position in the management. At a green-site, if you are heading a project, you’re the technical expert, the guru, the teacher and the leader; if there is a management structure it is usually, at least partially, beholding to you. At a brown-site, you’re the outsider who is going to make their day just a little bit more complicated — or worse. As an old hand, the ombudsman can help you deal with superintendents, foremen, operators, and production engineers.

One thing an ombudsman probably cannot do is liaison with maintenance and vendors or read program code. Production in most plants may, or may not, be on talking terms with maintenance and process engineering. The ombudsman may not be on talking terms with these groups either but, with your backing, may be able to get them to work for you. He’s known most of the mechanics and electricians for years. Besides, a good ombudsman should be on talking terms with all the managers up to the one that runs the plant; Dean had a backdoor and everyone knew it. It helped that he knew the higher-ups at corporate too. He knew the VP of engineering when he was a lowly engineer. On a few occasions during our huge capital project, I think he made some changes behind the scenes that even the plant manager didn’t know about.

As for code, Dean was never interested, but he thoroughly looked at every display and had distinct opinions on what the operators needed to run the plant and what was nonsense. His language was a little more colorful. Dean could easily win me to his argument because he had the interests of the operators at heart. Happy operators often equate to a smooth operation — another lesson I learned from him. Together, we produced screens that were easy to use and with few nuisance alarms. It was a pity that other engineers didn’t listen to him.

Besides signing off on programming, an ombudsman should review operating procedure. If he can’t make sense of it, how will a new operator? The ombudsman should work with the trainer to smooth things over by testing the procedures and by helping with operator training.

I still remember Dean with fondness nearly 10 years later. His contributions to my projects, many unseen, probably saved me from the antagonism of production managers and conflicts with the union.

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