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Preclude Project Pitfalls

Dec. 5, 2018
Management issues often pose a key stumbling block to success

Many problems, perhaps even most, result from the attitude of people, not from purely technical causes. That general observation relates to both management and non-management personnel. Management-based problems don’t create themselves but stem from management failure.


Very few staff at operating plants have significant design, engineering or construction experience. Likewise, relatively few staff at design, engineering or construction outfits have significant operating experience. This disconnect between the operations and engineering side of the business is well known. Pragmatic operating and engineering companies put considerable effort into managing this problem.

However, the engineering firm usually assumes the operating company knows how to properly operate the plant. Similarly, the operating company usually assumes the engineering firm knows how to manage a project. One classic example illustrates the danger of such an assumption.

I was involved in reviewing project work to be done during the next turnaround at a plant to solve a major operating problem. A just-completed 3D model would serve as a final check on the solution. I was on the review team, which included engineering, operating and consultant personnel. The entire team was together in one room and had just found some differences between the 3D model and the issued-for-design (IFD) piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs).

By itself, this was annoying but not unexpected. After all, 3D models were new and difficult to build; most designers weren’t very experienced with the software or the concepts yet. So, mistakes often occurred.


In this case, the drawings right in front of me certainly didn’t agree with the 3D model; the errors went beyond annoying to stupefying. However, the 3D designer strenuously argued that the model accurately reflected the P&IDs. He went back to his office and returned with a set of hand-marked P&IDs clearly at odds with the so-called IFD drawings. Not only were the hand marks different but the underlying printed P&ID didn’t match the IFD drawing.

Some questions revealed that no “master set” of P&IDs existed. No control systems were in place to verify the IFD drawings incorporated all changes. The project was large and complex enough that continuing along without addressing these disparities would virtually guarantee creating a plant with a host of problems. These would directly stem from a management failure.

The various disciplines involved in the project each had their own “private” copies of P&IDs that showed changes. Sometimes, a single department had multiple sets of different P&IDs. No system had been established for getting all the changes to the creator of the drawings (the piping department). Chaos resulted.

At first, many of the operating company personnel present didn’t understand the seriousness of this issue. Their attitude was “we’ll just fix the drawings by creating as-built drawings after the job is done.” In short order, though, three major flaws were found in the piping configuration; these would have prevented the plant from running properly. At that point, the operating company people realized the importance of rechecking the design and having a new P&ID review.

Any project involving more than a few people requires a master set of P&IDs as well as rigorous control of any changes to them. You must ensure that only specifically identified people can modify the current working drawings.

During different project stages, multiple disciplines (process, mechanical, instrumentation, electrical, etc.) may make changes. It’s essential that these changes are dated and initialed by the person responsible.

Changes may conflict with each other. Someone spotting such a conflict can’t simply erase a change. Removal or modification must occur only after securing the agreement of the person (or authority) that made the change.

You can rely on either paper or electronic systems to track changes. Paper systems often are easier to mark-up than electronic drawings. However, electronic systems enable automatic identification of the author of changes and allow remote workers to modify drawings. Regardless of system used, you must ensure strict adherence to the key elements of control and identification.

As the example here points up, management failure can create problems. Indeed, overlooked failures in management systems and behavior are the most common culprits for plant predicaments. The easiest problem to solve is the one that doesn’t exist. The most-effective problem avoiders worry about how work gets done.

ANDREW SLOLEY is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. You can email him at [email protected].

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