Downstream technology innovations useless without staff interaction

Downstream operators are using the latest technology to accelerate execution of turnarounds, maintenance and major projects, but many projects are often missing the communication aspect, according to analysts.

Advanced sustainment and lean operation methods, which focus on reduced waste and greater communication, are used by owners like Suncor, Shell, and ExxonMobil to get through turnarounds and projects. Image: Cecilie Arcurs

Technology is moving faster than ever before, and downstream operators are focusing on new, innovative ways to handle turnarounds, maintenance and major projects using the latest, greatest technology trends and racing to finish first; but experts warn projects and teams may be overlooking the communication aspect.

As the first wave of petrochemical construction projects begin to start up along the U.S. Gulf, the realization is that the rush to build so many major petrochemical complexes quickly and simultaneously did not come without problems

First wave labor and raw material shortages resulted in higher costs as companies largely did design, procurement and construction at the same time and had to compete for both materials and labor. The rush to build quickly led to engineering challenges as well.

The first wave of petrochemical projects drained resources, thus pushing operators to turn to new solutions for efficiency as the second wave begins.

More owners are now turning to advanced sustainment and lean operations for managing major projects including shutdowns and turnarounds.

Lean Operations

Advanced sustainment and lean operation methods, which focus on reduced waste and greater communication, are used by owners like Suncor, Shell, and ExxonMobil to get through turnarounds and projects.

Documented improvements have been seen in schedule accuracy and attainment by more than 15%, work order quality by more than 20%, and reducing contractor needs by more than 15%, according to Argo Consulting.

Advanced sustainment methods focus on building people skills and interactions, while the lean operations focus is on improving the process, Argo said.

By improving communications and using components like visual boards, visual management tools and leader standard work, operators can channel high-level work programs down to a pragmatic real-time and flexible communication approach.

In doing this, employees are interconnected at the right points for maximum project success and are better able to react to unforeseen events.

Visual management boards are used to communicate the status of safety, quality, cost, and delivery on a real-time basis and are also used to update manually a metric(s) that means something to a craft team, such as work orders completed per shift, materials returned to warehouse or repeat work.

“Visual management techniques, if implemented properly, represent the targets and the status in real time. If the right people are in the room at the time and at the right frequency, collaboration, accountability and problem-solving happen naturally, because everyone is looking at the same data,” Jorge Mastellari of Argo said.

Visual Management

Various visual management and status meeting techniques will work effectively depending on the complexity of the turnaround or project, the amount of contractors, the length of the event and the particular site.

Chris Vaughn, currently a Plant Manager at Addivant, has used visual management in turnarounds, shutdowns and projects.

Vaughn’s management process for many turnarounds would typically involve two 30-minute status update meetings each week and keeping a recap visual board updated daily for all participants to see.

The status meetings typically take place twice a week, on Monday mornings to check in and establish the week’s priorities, performance measurement, resources needed and any potential roadblock or barriers. Then, a check out meeting on Thursday afternoon is held to provide status updates and discuss performance and improvement goals for the following week.

Daily Recap Visual Management Agenda Items


“Smaller projects and standard turnarounds with less contractors might do ok with weekly status updates,” Vaughn said. “A more complex turnaround or project with multiple contractors and day-to-day activities would necessitate daily status updates.”

The supervisor leads the conversation around a clear target to win and allows craft to adjust schedules according to priorities and potential issues, Mastellari said.

“The supervisor has a finger on the pulse of every team and demands explanation for misses every time a craft team does not meet its work order target for the day,” Mastellari said. “This provides engagement and accountability.”

Daily Recap Visual Board


Weekly Check in Check out board

Data for Visual Board managment courtesy of Chris Vaughn

Excellence in Execution

With bigger outlooks amid increasingly squeezed budgets, reduced margins, aging assets and pressure to improve productivity and efficiency; one of the key priorities across both Maintenance and Turnaround departments is to look for innovative solutions to age old problems while achieving operational excellence.

Operational Excellence is much more than just the mechanical execution of turnarounds, top managers believe.

“Operational excellence happens in all phases of the turnaround – Planning/Scheduling, Execution, and Critique,” Vaughn said. “Significant energy and effort takes place years or months before a turnaround is executed. Operational excellence cannot happen in execution if it doesn’t happen in the planning and scheduling phase.”

Operations, Maintenance, Capital, Contract Administration are all stakeholders in every phase of the turnaround and the teamwork, or lack the hereof, can influence the performance during execution.

“The teams that I had the privilege of leading took a focused approach towards operational excellence in identifying the turnaround scope, scheduling the work activities and understanding the commissioning sequence,” Vaughn said. “We have completed several successful turnarounds because the team was focused in all phases including critique.”


Post-event feedback is important as it provides the reality check of what went right or what went wrong during the turnaround or maintenance event beyond scheduling and budgets. Keeping track of problems is important to progressively avoid these pitfalls again and can be the motivation to develop a new system.

“Organizations are holding themselves and other organizations accountable in the critique and action plans that we developed,” Vaughn said. “Complacency is the biggest risk when performing critiques. Teams need to be introspective and work to develop their skills in the gaps identified in critiques.”

By Heather Doyle