Strike the Right Balance

Make the walk-through your first line of defense, advises Dirk Willard in this month's Field Notes column.

By Dirk Willard, senior editor

Eighty-percent of success is (not just) showing up — Woody Allen.

I was freezing, starving, and in the same clothes as the day before yesterday. My 3 a.m. rounds were taking way too long. It was a familiar ritual that I hoped I could finish soon before the brisk breeze blowing off Lake Erie froze my fingers blue. “What the hell!” I shouted loudly. A couple of dazed electricians turned their heads. The regulator on a ceramic control valve was set to 150 psi by the dayshift. The valve could stand no more than 100 psi so I reset the regulator to 85 psi and marked the gauge.

The walk-through should be more than a familiar ritual. It should strike a balance between filling in boxes on a clipboard and strolling through an area admiring the weld-stitches on the pipes. First, there’s a difference between an operator walk-through and an engineer walk-through.

Operator walk-throughs should occur at least twice a shift. A form should be completed to show that it’s done. The form should compel the operator to look at the most troublesome equipment. Ideally, the checklist should be part of a shift-exchange meeting where problems can be passed along to maintenance, engineering and others. At the very least, shift notes, as the walk-through form is often called, should be discussed, in detail, with the replacement operator. A proper hand-over is usually a good idea anyway even if a shift-meeting is held. Now, here’s the critical part: make sure shift notes are complete, that you, as a supervisor, are getting comments and that the form helps the operators do their jobs. The content of the shift notes should be reviewed at least every month and certainly updated whenever new equipment is installed. Keep careful notes to say why something was added or removed.

When preparing new forms, or updating old ones, open the discussion with maintenance and engineering. For continuity, have your foremen, or senior operators, walk-through less-experienced operators every few months; tag along to see that things are done right. Review comments and produce a form operators respect and faithfully use. Remember, if there are no comments, the walk-through has become a ritual — change that immediately!

Engineer walk-throughs should be less focused. You need to consider how things are being done as much as that work is completed. During a project, I check for:

  1. termination boxes below instruments — they collect water and short out;
  2. Teflon tape going counter-clockwise (opposite of tightening) so it won’t unravel;
  3. old gaskets cut and hung next to equipment when flanges are removed (flanges should have fresh gaskets);
  4. labels on pipes— with arrows too — going the right direction;
  5. correct installation of check valves;
  6. loose wires or cables wrapped in sealed plastic;
  7. connected ground wires;
  8. lubricators at least half full;
  9. leak-free mechanical seals;
  10. sumps neither full or empty;
  11. normal readings on lights on remote vendor-specific panels;
  12. dry compressed air that has been bled before initial use;
  13. equipment sounding the way it should;
  14. any unusual smells — like burning wire;
  15. adequate lighting concentrated where people will work;
  16. and, lastly, nothing glowing that isn’t supposed to.

During routine production walk-throughs, an engineer should concentrated on areas of concern. At one company, the spray dryer was my nightmare. Previous engineers had let things go and so I got into the habit of watching the fans and pumps like a hawk. Gradually, after several close calls, I managed to get ahead of the maintenance, anticipating breakdowns rather than suffering through them.

New technology may be right around the corner to alleviate some of the hit-or-miss aspects of the walk-through. At Emerson’s Global User Exchange in October 2006, I saw a case history on how Valero Energy used an IntelaTrac to improve operator walk-throughs at its refineries. IntelaTrac provides for clamp-on tools like RTDs, RFID trackers, IR guns and other devices for basic troubleshooting. This “mobile task management” system includes “what-do-we-do-if” algorithms that supposedly replace years of process experience. This is electronic kin of the old “alarm/trip summary.”

While this tool may be very useful as a reminder, I doubt that it can replace years of process experience. A mobile task manager may be next to useless with new process technology. Although, IntelaTrac was very impressive, we are a long way from seeing this Blackberry-like device supplant engineering experience. The set-up cost alone seems daunting: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

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