May 2018


Reliability: Preserve what worked well in 1980

The second CCC implementation strategy involved so-called “shirt sleeve seminars.”

Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

The organizers of a recent hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI) conference had arranged a commendable session for young leaders. The session was moderated by experienced mid-level managers, and it allowed the young leaders to explain strategies they had inherited, amended, devised or were in the process of implementing.

We were impressed by much of what we heard, and were later encouraged by others to suggest topics for consideration in 2018. It appeared that young leaders were struggling with the differentiation between maintenance and operations. They indicated that finger-pointing was still in effect, whereby one side blames the other for unplanned or unexplained events. We decided to single out two past examples to illustrate why we suggested “Preserve what worked well in 1980,” or a similar topic, for 2018:

  1. In 1970, a simple differentiation strategy was implemented by a best-of-class (“BoC”) company. Pumps were repaired by the company’s maintenance workforce. However, the second failure of a pump in any 12-mos period triggered a “change in ownership.” After the second intervention or failure, rebuild/repair action for a process pump was no longer left to the maintenance department. Accountability for the best overall repair-upgrade-restoration sequence and future failure avoidance was thereafter assigned to the reliability group. In other words, that “bad actor pump” no longer belonged to the maintenance department, where a “repair in kind” approach had clearly not prevented an early repeat failure.
  2. In 1975, the heads of maintenance and heads of operations were randomly told to “switch hats”
    on a moment’s notice. This forced them to know each other’s craft and to cooperate to a previously unprecedented degree.1

While we deem Point 1 to be self-explanatory, we think Point 2 merits explanation. In the mid-1970s and the decades following, one multinational petrochemical company’s most productive and profitable plants were led by plant managers (PMs). The PMs had three division managers reporting to them: (1) manufacturing, (2) health and human relations, and (3) project/technical. Two department heads reported to the manufacturing division manager: (1A) the operations department head, and (1B) the maintenance department head. The individuals designated 1A and 1B could expect to receive a phone call from the PM in the middle of the night. They would be told by the PM to “switch hats” as of the coming sunrise. After an unspecified, open-ended time period—typically 5 mos, or as many as 14 mos—the PM called them to request another switch.

As a result of the hat-switching approach, the “3 Cs”—cooperation, communication and consideration—were thoroughly inculcated in these two department heads. No silo development occurred. When I retired from the central engineering offices of this corporation, the word “silo” referred strictly to grain storage, not the “hoarding of knowledge” seen today. Good managers prevented this from happening. The two hat-switchers, 1A and 1B, became superb professionals, capable and deserving to be promoted ahead of others. Counterproductive finger-pointing did not exist at these plants.1

At the BoC companies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, company management and employees knew that an asset’s reliability was affected by how it had been initially specified, selected and installed. All were aware that safe and reliable function also depended on how the asset was being operated and maintained. It was implied that “CCC” needed to be practiced every step of the way; adversarial “one-upsmanship” relationships were scarce. While an abundance of preaching of CCC is seen today, it is a sad sign of the times to not see it consistently practiced. (To quote Amoco Oil’s Ed Nelson: “When it’s all said and done, more is said than done.”)

PMT meetings and “shirt sleeve seminars.” Progressive BoC companies of 30 yr–40 yr ago prospered by implementing weekly 2-hr PMT meetings.1 For good reason, these weekly meetings had to be attended by (1) the process operators (the “P” in PMT) who had written a work order, (2) the maintenance/mechanical technicians (“M”) who had worked on and remedied the flawed asset, and (3) the technical staffers (“T”) whose job it was to recommend steps to avoid repeat failures of the asset. Attendees from P, M and T learned from each other, and jointly accepted responsibility for improving the safety, profitability and reliability of assets entrusted to their care.

Suppose that a mechanical seal had to be replaced soon after P had brought a pump online. At the meeting, the M participant would show the failed seal to the assembled group and explain why it had run dry. Participant T would confirm that seals of this type typically run without difficulty for 6 yr at the company’s affiliate locations, but require a liquid flush medium to carry away heat. Instead of accusing P of having forgotten to open the seal flush supply valve, P, M and T would quickly agree that an engraved tag stating, “Verify that flush liquid supply valve is open before starting this pump” should be affixed to the start-stop station. Case closed, lesson learned, peace maintained.

The second CCC implementation strategy involved so-called “shirt sleeve seminars.” At the end of every monthly safety meeting at this BoC facility, a preselected staffer rolled up their sleeves and presented a well-prepared, 4 min–7 min overview of topics of interest—e.g., “When not to use bearings with riveted cages” and “Why we have disc pack couplings and rubber block couplings driving different machines” were on the list of 100 or more subjects that had to be learned and understood.

FIG. 1. Insight is always better than hindsight. Insight is also much cheaper to attain.


However, because these subjects are rarely taught at our universities, the presenters usually had to first educate themselves. They sought help from vendors and fellow employees whose detailed guidance and important craft expertise were of great value. Even some managers gained insight from these thoughtful technology disseminations (Fig. 1).

Why teach what we knew years ago? The preceding examples highlight just four of a dozen things that, regrettably, have not been conveyed to our young leaders. While the HPI conference session by and for young leaders was very informative, I would have liked to jump in and say: “The solution to this problem has been found and implemented before! Look closely at how personnel at BoC companies worked together in 1978, and see how successfully their operations were run.”

As we observe and also gain distance from how things were done years ago, we must see the merits of retaining a balanced view. To the extent that best practices existed years ago, they must be passed on and explained to the present generation. A laborious rediscovery of past best practices is woefully inefficient.

Finally, as things stand today, there is an over-dependence on computer-generated information. I do not fault this, but computer-stored information is of no use if we do not know what we are seeking. Today, few people are taught, or have learned, how to search for the information they need.

Learning from the experts should not be pushed aside. Both old and young must move beyond arrogantly thinking that they know everything. The message on how and why PMT and CCC were implemented and what they accomplished 30 yr–40 yr ago deserves to be heard. Those unfamiliar with it either miss out on facts, or are likely to “reinvent the wheel.” 

Literature cited

  1. Bloch, Heinz P., Petrochemical Machinery Insights, Elsevier Publishing Co., Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016.

The Author

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