January 2017


Reliability: Reliability and the EPC contractor

In this column, I have often elaborated on critical information related to reliability thinking. However, reliability thinking is continually subverted by approaches that concentrate excessively on project cost and completion.

Bloch, H. P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

In this column, I have often elaborated on critical information related to reliability thinking. However, reliability thinking is continually subverted by approaches that concentrate excessively on project cost and completion.

A highly respected operational excellence (OE) expert’s observations further support the impression that consistent, long-term and viable (“sustainable”) reliability pursuits often clash with the overriding priority concerns of budget and schedule. The OE expert acknowledged that reliability is generally accepted as having “nothing to dislike.”

Nevertheless, while managers often claim that safety and reliability are their topmost project objectives, this is only a claim. In the final analysis, they will have placed cost and completion (C&C) far ahead of anything else. This is because C&C affect the present, whereas reliability always affects the future. Occasional exceptions notwithstanding, people care mostly about the present.

How reward systems differ

Cynics have suspected that engineering/procurement/construction (EPC) money, and possibly even owner funds, are allocated and disbursed in favor of particular brands or vendors.

The OE expert thought back to a story relating to his travels in Russia in the early 1990s. He was informed that EU development money would need to be spent within the EU and be distributed based on the advice of EU consultants. As a result, he said, Russian development funding was largely a means for the EU to maintain and grow its own economies: very little result or value remained in Russia. The OE expert opined that Eastern European owner-operators are probably dealing with reward systems where even medium-term reliability means little in terms of owner-operators’ remuneration.

The OE expert wrote about a parallel discussion with another colleague. The two examined corporate cultures that apply in this instance. Basically, if a subordinate’s belief system is at odds with those in charge, then the subordinate has three choices:

  1. Resign their position and find another job, hopefully one where the culture, ethics and common sense pursuits are in better alignment.
  2. Accept circumstances as they are, comply as best as possible, keep the paychecks coming and hope for the safety of one’s future pension.
  3. Attempt to change things, which is by far the most difficult, frustrating and potentially dangerous. Change agents are often viewed as troublemakers
    and non-team players, and can be passed over for promotion or dismissed regardless of experience, competence, integrity or contributions.

If we are change agents, we must struggle with what we tell others. We should ask ourselves if our advice is the best advice for a young engineer in a potentially frustrating position of reliability engineering. This engineer might end up in a position where reliability itself is not highly valued by those in charge. The OE expert’s initial thought was to ask young engineers to do the best they can under the circumstances. If fact-based advice is not accepted, then their fallback position might be to carefully study potentially unreliable equipment decisions. The OE could determine and examine the most probable failure modes and make certain that spare parts options are well researched.

In our follow-up correspondence, the OE expert insisted that it is always the fixer who is rewarded for solving a messy problem, and not the reliability engineer whose forethought would have avoided the problem in the first place!

Be proactive and professional

More often than not, it is impossible to change the prevailing culture from below. However, we cannot idly stand by and display a victim mentality. If efforts to improve or impart equipment reliability are ignored or marginalized, then everything possible must be done to identify and risk-rank potential failures.

Contact past and present users for their experience. Ascertain every high- and medium-risk failure mode with as much advance warning as possible. Include condition monitoring in your implementation strategy, and line up or even purchase ample spares. Familiarize yourself with competent local or close-by OEMs and, in particular, non-OEM repair and upgrading service organizations.1

Predefine and prequalify competent firms that go beyond merely repairing equipment, to actually engineering and incorporating upgraded parts. In some cases, it is important to realize that customs entry and clearance procedures alone can require several weeks for parts and repairs.2

Perhaps authorization will be granted to hire an expert whose typically lengthy and expensive report will likely support the work that has been done. Cheer up! Things tend to happen in cycles, and the pendulum swings in both directions. In the meantime, be safe and stand clear of flying debris. HP


Portions of this column were excerpted from the author's latest book.1


  1. Bloch, H. P., Petrochem Machinery Insights, Elsevier Publishing, Oxford, UK and Woburn, Massachusetts, 2016.
  2. Mitchell, J. S., Operational Excellence: Journey to Create Sustainable Value, John Wiley Publishing, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2015.

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