Correctly Manage Change

How you begin is at least as important as your eventual goal

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

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We called it Litchfield’s Folly. Twenty years ago, Art Litchfield was a vice president of operations for a division of Anheuser-Busch. Art was a terrific engineer but his idea for extracting the last bit of sugar from mash didn’t make much sense. Unfortunately, I inherited it as part of my mash upgrade project. But when Art retired, his folly was retired with him.
So, where did Art go wrong? He didn’t consider practicality. His idea required too much attention from the operators. The necessary tanks were built but never used.

Practicality certainly is crucial for success. However, first and foremost an idea must have a purpose that everyone recognizes. People quickly dismiss politically motivated ideas as a waste of time. Of course, supporting such an idea sometimes may help your career — but at the risk of your credibility.

A new engineer in our company lapped up praise for a nitrogen usage study he proposed. When the idea was pitched to me, an instrument engineer, I told management I thought it would use more resources than it could possibly save. Others quietly voiced the same opinion. Nonetheless, the study went forward, identifying perhaps $20,000/year in savings while consuming $80,000 in costs that year and, more importantly, tying up much of my staff, who considered the assignment a boondoggle.

Another common dodge is to claim an improvement will reduce hazards or environmental exposure. During a job interview in Houston, a manager told me that several projects on the books were drummed up for political reasons under the guise of safety improvements. My interest in the job evaporated.

Always consider resource availability. A flurry of change requests can quickly exhaust the labor available to carry out routine maintenance — possibly compromising plant safety. A lot of accidents occur during turnarounds because people are tired and overworked. Hiring contractors to fill in may adversely affect safety and reliability.

One of the most difficult challenges in management of change (MOC) is getting people behind an idea. You must appeal to their self-interest. Clearly explain the goals of the change in simple terms and, most of all, be honest.

Operators aren’t going to support an idea that will deprive them of overtime or, worse yet, pile more responsibilities on them — unless they understand it’s for a good reason. They may not comprehend the benefit of a process improvement that boosts yield but they will grasp a reduction in the time they waste cleaning burnt product out of a reactor. Sometimes, their fears are justified. If a substantial shakeup will occur, do a time study of operators performing their jobs before and after a change is implemented.

Operators aren’t the only people afraid of change. However, white collar fears aren’t often discussed in Pollyannaish books on MOC. Anxieties include: 1) lack of experience; 2) risk of failure; and 3) absence of control. The chemical industry is cyclic, with downsizing and reshuffling as the norm. So, managers and engineers frequently are assigned processes about which they are less than intimately familiar, plus sometimes these facilities are remote. Fear of failure can be quite potent, especially if rumors of downsizing abound. Often the politics in a plant don’t allow an engineer to really control the change being implemented.

Another challenge to launching a process change is identifying all its implications. In a previous column (“Solve the Real Problem,” www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2006/188.html), I mentioned how a modification to reduce drying costs led to a downstream environmental problem. Clearly an idea must be fully explored for its effects on safety, reliability, quality and the environment. That’s the intent of the MOC process. However, in practice, MOC can evolve into a series of checklists that may not inspire the imaginative thought that’s crucial. Frank Bormann, testifying in Congress after the Apollo 1 fire, blamed a lack of imagination: no one could envision how Velcro could be sparked to burst into flames in a pressure test involving pure oxygen.


Closer to home, Trevor Kletz, in his book “Still Going Wrong,” describes how a mixing chamber feeding a reactor exploded (pp. 137–138). The designers believed they had ensured safety by removing all known sources of ignition but didn’t anticipate use of a cleaning agent that could provide an ignition source. The moral is don’t depend on removing ignition sources, instead opt for inherent safety (see: www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/158.html). The danger was removed by doing the mixing in the reactor — at point of use, according to Kletz. Understanding the implications of your change will allow you to complete it safely and successfully.

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