May 2020

Special Focus: Maintenance and Reliability

Highlights from a maintenance and reliability audit

Staffers in many plants in modern industry are assigned to job functions related to reliability assessment and implementation.

Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

Staffers in many plants in modern industry are assigned to job functions related to reliability assessment and implementation. How these reliability-related job functions are carried out varies greatly from plant to plant. Accordingly, the effectiveness or completeness of implementation deserves to be monitored; it should be periodically assessed by an audit.

In this condensed article, the author recalls his work with a highly experienced colleague and shares examples from a two-day sequence of one-hour audit interviews. We audited and later summarized our in-depth communications with managerial, operations and maintenance/reliability technical personnel at plant “ABC” in the U.S. Our recollections condense and summarize our key observations and compare these against goals, originally set and long since achieved, by acknowledged high performers in world-scale oil refineries and leading petrochemical plants.

Key observations and universally applicable goals

Key findings from the audit are detailed in the following subsections.

  1. Finding 1: The reliability function at ABC was not separated from the plant maintenance function. Traditional maintenance priorities and a “fix it the way we’ve always done it” mentality win out more often than warranted.

The goal: Best-practices facilities (BPFs) know precisely when upgrading is warranted and cost justified. BPFs view every maintenance event as an opportunity to upgrade. Their roles call for (a) being well-informed on available technology upgrades and (b) being organized and encouraged to respond quickly to proven life-extension opportunities.

  1. Finding 2: The auditing subject matter expert (SME) found ABC’s reward system to be largely production-oriented and not geared toward consistently optimizing the bottom-line lifecycle-cost impact. The lifecycle cost concept is not applied to the upgrade options available to ABC.

The goal: BPF facilities are consistently driven by an unswerving pursuit of longer-term LCC optimizations. Lifecycle costing is applied on both new and existing (upgrade) equipment options.

  1. Finding 3: Reliability professionals at ABC are not sufficiently aware of the details of successful and cost-effective reliability implementations elsewhere.

The goal: Imitate BPF facilities that provide easy access to mentors and utilize effective modes of self-teaching via mandatory exposure to trade journals and related publications, as well as frequent and periodic “shirt-sleeve seminars.” These onsite presentations are, essentially, briefing sessions that give visibility to the reliability technicians. Shirt-sleeve seminars serve to upgrade the entire work force, including managers, by imparting knowledge and by slowly changing the prevailing culture.

  1. Finding 4: The auditing SMEs, meaning author and colleague, perceived a lack of continuity of leadership at ABC. The organization did not seem to retain its attention span long enough to effect a needed change from their present, or existing, repair focus to the urgently needed reliability focus. The known influence of both mechanical and I&E (instrument and electrical) equipment reliability on (rightly) coveted process reliability did not always seem to be appreciated at ABC.

The goal: Even today, years later, the auditors know of no BPF organization or top-quartile company that is repair focused. Experts generally agree that successful players must be totally reliability focused to survive in the coming decades.

  1. Finding 5: Specialization and compartmentalization (forming silos and allowing these to exist) at managerial levels risks a measure of finger-pointing—the “blame game.”

The goal: The most successful BPF organizations have seen huge advantages in requiring the trading of places by two managers. At certain BPF locations, maintenance superintendents and operations superintendents are asked to switch jobs when the plant manager requests this switching with only a few hours of warning. Daily cooperation and thoroughly learning each other’s job take the place of defensiveness and finger-pointing practiced elsewhere.

  1. Finding 6: Failure analysis and effective data logging activities generally lag industry practices.

Example 1: The facility experienced failure of a vertical pump 2 wk after repair. The pump in question normally runs for 2 yr without trouble. We were unable to find a good explanation of the failure incident. The old parts had been quickly discarded, and no measurements were recorded.

The goal: BPF organizations involve operations, maintenance, and project/reliability personnel in joint failure analysis and data logging. A structured and repeatable approach is used, and accountabilities are well understood at BPFs.

  1. Finding 7: Gaps exist in planning functions and process-mechanical coordinator (PMC) assignments. Gaps in the consistent administration of performance appraisals are also seen.

Example 1: Planners assigned to Unit 1 are less experienced and less productive than planners in Unit 2. The planners’ efforts are not resulting in sufficiently detailed and precise output at the Unit 1 location.
Example 2: Not much predictive maintenance is done at Unit 1; consequently, the unit is always involved in more crisis work than other process units.
Example 3: One professional employee has had only one performance appraisal in more than 3 yr of employment at ABC and is justifiably concerned.
The goal: Consistency at all levels must be attained, along with evenhandedness in hiring and training. The facilitation of knowledge-sharing, networking and tutoring is key. The practice of well-founded management techniques should be enforced from the highest levels down.

Weak project engineering interfaces

Other findings turned up weak project engineering issues, as detailed in the following points.

  1. Finding 8: An apparent emphasis on cost and schedule allows non-optimized equipment and process configurations to be procured. At times, such equipment is replicated or duplicated in planning, design and construction of similar units elsewhere. Reliability-focused installation standards and responsible owner follow-up are low.

Example 1: Finishing area, where dead legs allow accumulation of plugging product.
Example 2: Belt-driven pumps were purchased and installed, as per an existing and technologically outdated configuration.
The goal: Imitate BPF organizations; they actively involve their maintenance and reliability functions. LCC considerations are given strong weight at BPFs. Note that BPF organizations have contingency budgets that can be tapped if “debugging” should become necessary. BPFs do not tolerate the notion that operations departments will either learn to live with a constraint, or else make enemies.

  1. Finding 9: The organization was advised to be more diligent in providing feedback to its resident professional workforce.

Example 1: The organization continues to engage in repairing inefficient air-operated diaphragm pumps at very high cost. We realize that there are lower-long-term cost, higher-reliability options available. These options have been suggested and spelled out by workforce members. However, at ABC, the “we’ve always done it that way” approach dominates. We believe that it would be prudent to actively support a better option and to encourage implementation by professionals who have the honest desire to work towards needed change.
The goal: Provide feedback that reinforces the use of high-grade work procedures and discourages risky or inefficient procedures or work habits.

Lack of role statements and training plans noted

In some cases, lack of defined goals, roles or training plans may cause issues during an audit.

  1. Finding 10: A lack of role statements can lead to inefficiency and encourage becoming trapped in a cycle of “fire-fighting.” Not having written role statements deprives the entire ABC organization of a uniform understanding of roles and expectations
    for reliability professionals.

Example 1: In addition to structured self-training and participation in periodic “shirt-sleeve” seminars, the proficiency of reliability personnel would be enhanced by well-thought-out training plans. Key learnings must be consistently employed. Site management must verify continuity of application.
Example 2: A root cause failure analysis course was taught at this site in 1998 or 1999. Whether this structured method is in fact used is subject to speculation.
The goal: BPF organizations use role statements as a clear roadmap to achieve mutually agreed-upon goals. Among other things, this allows for meaningful performance appraisals.

Mentoring, resource utilization and networking

An audit may find that better mentoring and utilization of resources helps improve personnel performance.

  1. Finding 11: Both business improvement teams and reliability improvement teams are in place. While we were not able to question the effectiveness of these teams, their value obviously hinges on the various team members’ technical strength and breadth of experience. Improvement is possible.

Example 1: Some reliability personnel were not familiar with helpful written material; this material could easily point them in the right direction.
Example 2: ABC uses Vendor “X” as its only mechanical seal supplier. Moreover, access to Vendor “X” was said to be funneled entirely through a distributor.
The goal: BPF organizations have full access to the design offices of several major original equipment manufacturer (OEM) firms. These BPFs have acquired, and actively maintain, a full awareness of competing products. They will select whichever product meets their profitability objectives.

  1. Finding 12: One refractory-lined reactor requires (expensive) maintenance work every year, while another lasts 3 yr between shutdowns. According to one source, the difference is in the dry-out procedure, and the opinions vary as to which is the correct procedure.

The goal: BPF organizations facilitate, or even provide, mentor access that will result in the authoritative and immensely cost-effective definition of what is in the best interest of the company.

  1. Finding 13: We learned that an internet search by ABC’s mechanical integrity specialists uncovered an effective reactor shell wall coating. It was later found that the ABC plant in “Location G” had been using this superior “XYZ” coating for some time.

The goal: BPF organizations make extensive use of networking. Relatively informal, low-cost network newsletters use input from grassroots contributors who gain both visibility and name recognition by demonstrating a motivation and inclination to communicate their successes to other company affiliates.

A network chairperson is used to communicate with plant counterparts and/or affiliated plants around the world. This job function is assigned to in-plant specialists (SMEs), including control design engineers, rotating machinery engineers, electrical engineers and specialists in other disciplines who periodically rotate in and out of this job function.

Commenting on the status of the organization

We were fully aware that our reporting style was more direct and did not convey as much “feel-good” feedback as might have been hoped for by some reading the report. This was done with forethought; anything less than an honest appraisal is a disservice to the client.

As relatively experienced, long-term observers of the process plant management scene, we considered ourselves as aware of the aspirations and constraints facing ABC’s management. Our report was meant to convey that ABC had:

  1. The ability to excel without spending more money than presently budgeted
  2. The good fortune of having some excellent professionals working in diverse job functions, but their full potentials had not been exploited
  3. Strong incentives to study and implement well-proven organizational (re-)alignments that were in place elsewhere
  4. The makings of rapidly becoming a true first-class performer in areas that included profitability and employee morale
  5. The ability to fully achieve these desirable goals in the relatively short span of 3 yr.

To the extent that clarifications were ever needed, we encouraged ABC’s management to consider follow-up communications. We expressed our desire to help ABC achieve its true potential.

We felt very strongly about the weightiness and accuracy of our observations and apologized for “coming on strong.” However, candor must be among the key attributes of reliability professionals who find their managers left with consultant-conceived generalizations instead of definitive and highly specific recommendations.

Periodic maintenance and reliability audits can point out where an organization must readjust its work practices and procedures. Without such “cold-eye reviews,” it may take a long time before a company joins the ranks of best-in-class performers. HP

The Author

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