Take a studied approach to plant studies

March 13, 2008
Carefully address the challenges of managing and directing specialized teams

Things weren’t going well! After completing one building our relief-valve survey had hit a snag, actually several. The two-phase-flow software was clunky; it often produced inconsistent results. Background information collected for each valve was incomplete. Plus our vent calculation used the panhandle formula, which only works if the pressure drop is less than 10%. Fortunately, management called off the survey before wasting any more money.

Don’t get me wrong — surveys often can play valuable roles in uncovering and correcting problems. However, to make the most of them requires good team management. So, how can you improve the team’s effectiveness?

First, appoint a leader with expertise in the work — knowledge of all that’s involved is crucial. Pick someone with an open mind capable of doing the work alone, if necessary.

Make sure the team’s tasks are clearly defined: Who does what? What tools are available? How will the results be presented? And, most importantly, how will any failures in the methodology be corrected?
It helps to have a second or even a third pair of eyes look over the methodology. Go through the process at least once. Improve the study procedure before proceeding to the next step — building the team.
Get the most qualified people available. If you can, hire new people, including consultants and contractors, who may bring new perspectives ( www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/017.html).

Recently, I worked on a tank farm study at a refinery. A refinery expert likely wouldn’t have given the pressure safety valve (PSV) configuration a second glance but it worried me. As I told an operator there, “I come from an industry where when PSVs relieve to the atmosphere people die.” At most refineries, most PSVs vent to atmosphere. I suggested checking grounding and possibly adding flame arrestors and a vapor recovery system. Hydrocarbons can generate enough static electricity when they exit a PSV to start a fire. The recommendation of a maximum velocity of 15 ft/s is seldom followed.

Once the staff is organized, equipped and, if necessary, formed into sub-teams, a kickoff meeting is crucial. This meeting should introduce everyone and provide phone lists and flow charts detailing how to address anticipated problems. Some typical problems might be: Who do I see about maintenance history? or How do I do peer review of a colleague’s work? The team leader should spell out the deadlines or endpoints for studies.

Also, define expected work paths. For instance, if checking an area for electrical classification should take two inspection tours, followed by two days to write an engineer’s report, two more to complete and review drawings, and a day to review with management and make minor corrections, this should be flow-charted.

After the first unit or area is completed it’s time for a post-mortem. A set schedule and an open atmosphere are essential to make the gathering meaningful. Include only team members in the meeting. Start by asking for suggestions on how the process could be improved. Identify bottlenecks right away. Look for ways to more effectively utilize your team. Don’t allow anyone to rule out an idea until it has been aired. Then, select the best options. The next step is to create an action list assigning people to study or solve a particular issue. Sometimes, the person best suited for an action item isn’t in the meeting. Assign the item to that person but make someone in the room responsible for shadowing the effort.

Parallel to post-mortems, interview the “customer” for the study; document items for improvement. Review the results with the team during the next weekly or bi-weekly meeting; increase the frequency of meetings if there’s a serious problem or impending deadline. Assign action items for any corrective measures and follow through.

Schedule these post-mortems whenever convenient until the study or survey is running smoothly. Then, hold meetings less frequently. Sometimes, the goal of the team is changed, refocused or even abandoned.

For each situation, budget plenty of time for meetings. If outside influences are involved, as they often are, set up a meeting to get the latest update on those influences before the team meeting; carefully document and share this with the group as the basis for the team meeting.

History is often neglected in studies. Early in a study it’s important to appoint a team historian. This person may or may not be the same person who manages documentation. The historian maintains a timeline, a list of resumés of staff, records how long tasks actually take to complete, updates flow charts and keeps a “lessons learned” list.

If the study is terminated arrange for sufficient time to write reports and summarize the methodology developed; this information could be invaluable to future studies. Important work seldom is shelved forever.

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