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Processing Operations: Do More Than Troubleshoot

Jan. 26, 2018
Find time to make improvements that deter difficulties

Crises and current problems command immediate attention. Achieving fast fixes is a priority. So, understandably, such troubleshooting captures a lot of attention in most plants.

This often results in efforts to improve base operations getting pushed to a lower priority — and, thus, people spending insufficient time trying to forestall future problems. That’s unfortunate because the best problem is the one that you don’t have.


Improving base operations frequently involves making many things a little bit better rather than altering one thing a lot. Making one big change is more akin to troubleshooting.

The approach of cumulative small changes sounds a lot like the focus promised by “continuous improvement programs.” In fact, it is. However, as the experiences of many plants and companies show, having a program isn’t really the major factor behind success. Attitude counts more than an official program. And, of course, a positive attitude only goes so far without ability.

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Success hinges on the interaction of three major aspects: (1) receptiveness to new ideas; (2) adequate technical knowledge; and (3) organizational attitude. The first requires willingness to question the status quo. The second demands knowledge about the plant, process fundamentals, equipment, and interactions between the process requirements and equipment behavior. The third gets into issues such as balancing the uncertainty of changing procedures versus possible benefits, and reallocating resources and responsibilities.

Organizational attitude often doesn’t receive enough consideration. So, let’s focus on it.

Improvement requires more than technical ability. It requires change. Change demands both physical and mental effort. If too much change happens at the same time, people make mistakes. Change without extra resources allocated rarely works as well as planned. Even small changes can tax organizations. A response that “we just can’t handle that right now” may seem reflexive but also may be a rational and realistic response to overload.

Changes, even minor ones, usually require some combination of two steps. First, staff need extra time so they can slow down and follow step-by-step procedure lists rather than relying on unwritten habits. Second, they should get extra training offline from the daily work so they can build new habits. Regretfully, the resources given (time, training)rarely suffice.

Successful organizations explicitly recognize the effort required for change and factor that into workload and budgets. These organizations then set an expectation of how many changes they are budgeting for. An example expectation would be “budget for six operating procedure changes per year to improve product quality.” Many other specific approaches are possible but few are ever done.

Change shifts responsibilities. Improvements can alter work load as well as maintenance requirements. For instance, a switch to more inspections, monitoring and preventive part replacement and less repair work after-failure demands care. If staffing isn’t revised as well, the inspectors may become overloaded.

Needed changes eventually may propagate higher up the organization. Alterations in responsibility and workload may necessitate the splitting or merging of departments. Some supervisors may get greater responsibility and authority. Often, people at higher supervisory levels resist change more than those at lower levels because they have put in a lot of time and effort getting to their current position.

Changes in work can truly lead to changes in importance of job functions and relative opportunities and status. Few of us are saintly enough to sacrifice too much of our potential or identity without some suitable tradeoff (benefit). The job of management is to align incentives so that changes that support the organization’s objectives mesh closely with individuals’ incentives. Effective improvement requires good management.

Success also demands conscious effort to foster attitudes to support change. Proper budgeting for the effort makes change more likely. Management also must understand the dynamics of changing work functions, workload and organizational modifications required.

ANDREW SLOLEY is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. He recently won recognition for his Plant InSites column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can email him at [email protected]

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