Downstream technology is more effective when owners connect the human chain - analyst

Petrochemical project leaders are turning to advanced sustainment and lean operation methods to fill the communication gaps left by high-level process mapping and performance objectives, an industry analyst told Petrochemical Update.

Visual management dashboards, updated daily, improve human connection and are one of the most important aspects of advanced sustainment methods. Photo: iStock.

Downstream operators focus on technology and high-level charting when it comes to turnarounds, maintenance and major projects; but, many projects and teams are often missing the communication aspect, according to analysts.

Advanced sustainment and lean operation methods are used by operators 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 focuses on building people skills and interactions, while lean operations focuses on improving the process. By using components like visual boards, visual management tools and leader standard work, operators are able to channel high-level work programs down to a pragmatic real-time and flexible communication approach so that employees are interconnected at the right points for maximum project success and able to react to unforseen events.

Image: Argo Consulting

“Technology can provide extensive asset reports and craft efficiency data; however, if this information is overwhelming and does not communicate succinctly a clear “real-time” message to supervisors and craft, very little will they be able to do to find the root cause of problems, correct actions and improve efficiency of their work,” Jorge Mastellari, senior vice president of Argo Consulting said.

Dynamic Work Design

Impelled by the 2005 explosion of BP’s Texas City oil refinery, MIT Sloan School of Management Distinguished Professor of Systems Dynamics and Organizational Studies Nelson Repenning began to focus on how to design work better. Together with Don Kieffer, a former vice president of Harley-Davidson who is now a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, he developed the DWD theory.

Kieffer and Repenning recognize that computers and technology can only take organizations so far, that it is human interaction that really gets the work done, and that challenges and unplanned events offer the opportunity to improve and innovate.

“What technology misses is the effective human interactions that are critical for proper problem-solving and decision-making,” Mastellari said.

“Organizational charts and process maps are necessary, but don’t give a complete view of how to get the work done, especially when problems arise, which they always do,” he added. “DWD provides the principles and frameworks for wiring the work together dynamically.”

Argo and MIT professors Kieffer and Reppening work regularly together in developing solutions for clients and expanding training and capabilities during joint work sessions.

Human Chain

DWD teaches that  'connecting the human chain,’ is how to structure the path of immediate escalation of an issue.

“Computers cannot deal with any ambiguity. DWD balances the technology side and the human side in a structured way to principles and design rules,” Kieffer said.

In highly complex tasks, such as turn-arounds, the computer can create a single schedule out of many complex factors.
However, computers can’t know all the local data in real time, such as who is missing that day, if all the materials are ready, if several jobs can be done together more easily, if there are weather issues, or any other necessary adjustments to the actual conditions, Kieffer explained.

“Computers can schedule the work to a certain point. It takes humans, with full knowledge of the local data, to sequence the work to take advantage of local and individual knowledge that a computer can’t,” Kieffer said.

Translating KPIs

Translating financial key performance indicators (KPI) to day-to-day operation goals is not an easy task for managers, and many rely on data driven reports e-mailed to departments instead of real-time communication.

“Many systems are driven by top management and financial needs, and reports are created with this in mind. Typically, as these reports are cascaded to other levels of the organization, middle managers and supervisors do not take the time (or do not have the skill) to convert the indicators – together with their team, not in isolation – to easy-to-understand real-time field level indicators,” Mastellari said.

Visual board example by Argo Consulting

DWD stresses the need to connect the human chain through open, real dialogue between superintendent, supervisors and craft to understand and agree on the critical few KPIs that make sense to track visually on a board real time, which may mean by shift or by day.

Visual Management

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 particular 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,” Mastellari said.

“People who are responsible for getting the work done are making commitments face-to-face with their colleagues. This diminishes the dysfunctional modes that happen with one-way communication such as e-mail. The daily huddles typically end with commitment around the 3 critical actions to win today” he added.

Visual Board example by Argo Consulting

"Visual management boards encourage individuals to engage “the conscious brain” which according to DWD findings is essential to promote the PDCA (plan/do/check/act) cycle for problem solving. The end game is to convert front line people from passive by-standers to active problem solvers,” Mastellari said

Status Meetings

DuPont is another petrochemical plant which has used a similar approach in team meetings during turnarounds.

While speaking at the Downstream Engineering, Construction and Maintenance Conference in New Orleans, Chis Vaughn talked about using visual management techniques during turnarounds at DuPont.

Vaughn’s management process involved two 30-minute status update meetings each week and keeping a recap visual board updated daily for all participants to see. The status meetings took place twice a week, on Monday mornings to check in and establish the week’s priorities, and a check out meeting on Thursday afternoon to provide status updates.

Visual Management: Check in Check out Board

Visual data board example courtesy of Chis Vaughn

“The supervisor leads the conversation around a clear target to win today 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. This provides engagement and accountability.”

Path to Victory

Unplanned events, schedule breaks and discovery work can be some of the most significant root causes for work order cost deterioration, unsafe work situations and overall execution mistakes. 

Argo said that supervisors should have a clear path to victory to deal with unplanned events.

This path to victory must have three components: consciousness of the right leadership behaviors, an organizational and technical path, and an established waste elimination methodology.

Image: Argo Consulting

Task teams should have significant practice in moving the work under normal conditions, but more importantly, be able to move the pieces of work that add value during times of stress and unplanned events, Mastellari said.

By Heather Doyle