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8 minutes reading time (1687 words)

Reaching Out Internally and Externally for Operational Excellence Improvement


One of the major issues we see when we go into some plants to do a maintenance or reliability assessment Is that the plant is an isolated island even in a multi plant enterprise. Sharing of ideas across sites is discouraged or forbidden by corporate culture or site management and there are no enterprise scorecards comparing site to site KPI’s. These sites rarely participate in external industry organizations, take external training courses or collaborate with personnel at other sites. One might ask how these organizations keep up with best practice, solve problems common to most refiners and train their staff. The simple answer is they don’t. Without some level of benchmarking and external communication it is very difficult to determine where you are relative to industry peers and how to improve. This blog discusses how one organization developed programs to reach out internally and externally - even extending beyond our industry boundaries to benchmark - to learn and improve operational excellence.


Prior to joining Becht Engineering I worked for a major petrochemical and refining company. I was hired along with a number of other people to make a step change in the reliability and operational excellence programs at this company. They had seen the light after a devastating accident left 17 people dead. The company was now absolutely committed to turning things around, assuring compliance with legal and industry requirements and making reliability and operational excellence top priorities. Unlike some organizations where this might be the flavor of the month, this company kept the focus during my career with them for nearly two decades. We were given the freedom and funding to make changes at all the sites to assure improvement. It was exciting to have this sort of support to make things happen.


One concept we developed early on was the idea of getting people from the sites together with the corporate staff to develop standards, share lessons learned and to learn from each other. These “Tech Teams” included a representative from each site and a corporate representative. All major disciplines had a “Tech Team” that met on a quarterly basis, had specific annual goals and reported to the central engineering organization. This concept helped build relationships and trust between the corporate and plant personnel, achieve consistency and provide an efficient way to move programs forward. Instead of each site having to do the work, the team collaborated to develop a common product used at all sites. Our mantra was “compete externally, collaborate internally.” Plants were expected to help each other, share resources and knowledge vs operate as an island in competition with each other.

We decided to start this program by bringing the inspection supervisors together to share ideas and develop a common set of standards. Each person brought their plant requirements to share however it was agreed that a common set of standards was needed and would be developed. We locked the room and slid pizzas under the door until the standards were done. In two weeks, a set of inspection standards was produced and buy in by all of the participants was achieved. This was an important accomplishment demonstrating the plants and corporate personnel could work toward a common goal. This humble beginning was designated the first annual Worldwide Reliability Forum. The Forum was in place for 18 years. During those 18 years, the Forum expanded into a week of group sessions where we brought in a variety of people from other backgrounds to give us a broad perspective on managing reliability. We also had discipline breakout sessions where specific technical topics could be discussed. The Tech Teams used the Forum week to hold one of their four annual meetings. In some respects, this program was similar to the AFPM Maintenance and Reliability Conference. At one point the Forum had over 600 people attend for at least one session during the week. Attendees included company executives, plant managers, engineers, technicians, EHS personnel, business team managers, operations and maintenance managers and even the CEO. The CEO and business leaders would always speak during the group session early in the week stressing the importance of reliability to plant safety and revenue.

Value Gained

While many organizations would find this type of gathering hard to justify, we recognized the huge value of even small reliability gains. Many of our plants had revenue of over $1MM/day and each outage came with process safety and other risks. Preventing just one olefins cracker trip fully justified the Forum. We also carefully documented savings and improvements resulting from pulling resources together to share knowledge and solve problems efficiently. After a few years it became a welcome tradition and was regarded as even more valuable than attending outside conferences. Each presentation was thoroughly vetted to assure it added value. This also gave our plant engineers experience preparing and presenting technical papers.

Another key aspect of the Worldwide Reliability Forum was to bring in external speakers who could add to our portfolio of knowledge on operational excellence. Speakers included personnel from the Center for Chemical Process Safety discussing the Shuttle disasters and relationship to major accidents in our industry, French nuclear engineers who were involved in the Chernobyl accident investigation, Navy Admirals, airline executives and strong leaders from our industry who had a proven track record in top plant performance. Here are some examples of what these external speakers brought to the table:

External Speakers - Worldwide Reliability Forum

Space Shuttle Disasters presented by the Center for Chemical Process Safety

space shuttleThe Space Shuttle disasters and accidents in our industry including the Piper Alpha Platform and Flixborough explosion share some common themes. These included:

  • Lack of a sense of vulnerability
  • Normalization of deviance
  • Having to “prove” something is unsafe to halt the work
  • Schedule over safety culture
  • Lack of a structured hazard evaluation process

NASA had a history of success and a “can do” attitude. This led to a culture where frank and open communication was suppressed, schedule trumped caution and people had to “prove” something was unsafe to halt moving forward. The organization also lacked a formal hazard evaluation process. Finally, normalization of deviance brought down both shuttles.

Normalization of deviance (see my 2018 blog on this topic) is where the unacceptable becomes acceptable since “we got away with it.” For example, you drive to work without a seat belt and arrive safely, work on your roof without being tied off and survive or you ride to work without a bike or motorcycle helmet and don’t get hurt, you are doing what you know is unacceptable. You know this is wrong but for some reason, you cut corners, get away with it and eventually the forbidden becomes acceptable. In the case of the shuttles any damage to the o-rings or losing insulating tile was unacceptable but over time it became just a maintenance item and at the end of the day caused both spacecraft to be lost. In our industry we sometimes see this behavior. Perhaps a person intentionally does not tie off or a lockout is not done properly. These are examples of normalization of deviance.

Chernobyl presented by the French Nuclear Agency

chernobylThe French nuclear engineers gave a dramatic presentation on the Chernobyl accident. It was determined the design was unstable compared to designs used elsewhere in the world. This design should have never been built. As a comparison to our industry, it showed the impact of improper equipment selection and operation.



Turning High School Grads into War Ready Sailors by Navy Admirals

We were honored to have US Navy Admirals speak twice at the Forum. The main thing they stressed was how they are able to take young men and women right out of high school and in a very short time train them how to operate their section of a sophisticated warship. This boiled down to:

  • Training
  • Procedures
  • Testing for understanding and compliance

While we have these elements in place in our industry, we were highly impressed with the intensity of training, completeness of procedures and drills to assure understanding.

Airline Industry by Continental Airlines and Southwest Airlines Executives

Executives from the airline industry brought a perspective of the complexities of logistics, aircraft maintenance, government regulations and a strong focus on procedures and safety.

Industry Leaders and Peers

charley jacksonIt is always a pleasure to bring in experts from other petrochemical and refining companies. Notable machinery personnel who could entertain the Forum crowd included Charlie Jackson, Monsanto Distinguished Fellow (photo left) and Heinz Bloch, an independent consultant following his career with Exxon. Heinz served as a mentor for me from the early 80’s throughout my career. Charlie was famous for his 6 Keys to Reliability.

The Six Keys to Reliability

    1. Hire good people
    2. Train 'em right
    3. Apply proven standards
    4. Buy and test good equipment
    5. Install it right
    6. Run it right

While we would give Charlie a hard time about his simplistic model, he would challenge us to find any plant problem that did not fall in these buckets. He would also make it clear if you followed the Six Keys during plant design, construction and start up you would likely have a well running plant.


I truly believe the Worldwide Reliability Forum contributed to stellar reliability performance, building relationships, mentoring young engineers and bringing new technology into the enterprise. It is unfortunate that many organizations find it difficult to grasp the value of building plant to plant and plant to corporate relationships as well as participating in external industry organizations. Perhaps some of you will have the vision, opportunity and support to push these concepts forward.

Becht Engineering has extensive experience supporting reliability and operational excellence improvement. We have a large staff with broad experience in all aspects of the nuclear, refining and petrochemical industries. For more information on our capabilities, please contact Rick Hoffman or Becht's Reliability Manager, Abby King by clicking the links below.

We encourage you to visit our web site at Becht.com.
You may leave a comment or ask a question at the bottom of this blog.

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Saturday, 28 March 2020

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