Rethink Operations Management

Tackle serious flaws that often undermine efforts

By Mike Neill, Petrotechnics, North America

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Operational excellence (OE) is becoming the focus for large chemical, petrochemical and refining companies. Such initiatives are aimed at building and sustaining efficient, safe and effective operations. Many firms adopt these programs intending to improve their health, safety, environmental and quality performance. Most OE initiatives focus on defining and implementing best practices and standardizing these methods across a facility or an enterprise. The output is measured in terms of commercial success, productivity, safety, sustainability and more. Achieving consistent performance improvement is the goal. To do this, operators must identify and manage any and all risks that threaten success.

The success of any OE initiative depends upon three key elements:

People (beliefs, values, and capabilities). Personnel must know what they should do, understand why, and be capable of doing it.

Processes (how things should be done). Organizations need a defined and properly communicated approach that controls output and ensures consistency in practice.

Technology/tools. People and organizations require underpinning support for delivering efficiency, consistency and process control.

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One of the challenges to achieving OE in a facility can be the organization itself. Most companies understand the benefits of integrated teams but tend to behave as though they are composed of silos, e.g., maintenance, engineering, asset integrity, reliability, operations and health/safety/environmental. This is understandable because each functional discipline usually uses in its own distinct language and methodologies. Yet, these silos can create difficulties and may adversely affect the objective of optimal operations. For instance, they may rely on information systems specific to their discipline, resulting in data silos that the rest of the organization can’t easily access.

This is a major challenge to OE where achieving efficient, safe and effective operations depends upon critical ad hoc decisions that impact a range of disciplines. When functional/discipline priorities conflict, cross-functional tension influences these decisions. Consider, for example, inspection, preventative maintenance and repair that drive the majority of daily activities. These efforts typically are carried out in a live plant with inherent hazards and ongoing operational activities such as starting up or shutting down equipment, isolating energy sources, changing out filters, pig receiving, operator rounds, etc. Other departments also might be active in the vicinity, e.g., working on adjacent units, small construction projects, temporary location of equipment, crane operations, etc. Constraints on these activities — such as safety considerations, budget, work clashes and resource limitations — are sure to arise. In other words, operators seldom can do all they want when they want. Priorities must be established and compromises made; sometimes a decision will mean deferred or canceled work. This is merely one example of how cross-functional conflict occurs in a plant and leaves frontline operations responsible for deciding priorities and agreeing to a plan of work.

Many other examples come to mind: The integrity group must check wall thicknesses on inlet piping but the pipe insulators who must remove the lagging material are tied up on another project. Process safety is pushing for repairs to an underperforming deluge system but the high cost of transporting spares by air means that, unless the budget is released, they would have to travel by sea and wouldn’t arrive for three more weeks. Maintenance wants to carry out preventative maintenance work on a compressor but operations, which already is behind on meeting monthly production targets, doesn’t want to take the unit offline.

Integrated planning should help minimize clashes but often the pertinent criteria aren’t available when plans are set. For OE to be effective, operators must optimize their plans, ensuring they’ve identified the impact on risk of any activity scheduling. This is easier said than done because operators can’t simplify and communicate the components of risk to an extent where people other than the process safety experts can easily assess them.

Even process safety lacks models that can effectively evaluate risk in a dynamic mode with multiple components. Instead, most risk-models based on process hazard assessments, bow ties and layer-of-protection analyses are scenario-based and are more suited to design than the reality of day-to-day operations.

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