June 2020

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Project Management: Four tips for navigating a shutdown, turnaround or outage successfully

In the oil and gas sector, managing a shutdown, turnaround, or even an outage is an unavoidable requirement.

Veen, M., Prometheus Group

In the oil and gas sector, managing a shutdown, turnaround, or even an outage is an unavoidable requirement. These projects are complex, with multiple stakeholders focused on limiting the time assets are offline with zero tolerance for safety incidents.

Organizations start with a vision to minimize risk, ensure operational excellence and ultimately remove uncertainty from maintenance decisions.

Organizing and executing an efficient, cost-effective and safe shutdown and turnaround delivers a significant competitive advantage, so getting it right is essential. Avoiding unnecessary downtime is mission-critical for owners and operators.

The keys to success come down to three critical components: people, process and technology. Crucial steps ensure that a shutdown, turnaround or outage (STO) event makes a positive (rather than detrimental) impact to the bottom line and sets up a facility for repeat success.

Planning

A successful STO requires significant time and investment in the planning and scoping stages. This detailed activity is called front-end loading. It is vital that the plan and schedule are comprehensive and designed to prevent potential negative consequences. Adhering to a disciplined process is critical to ensure that nothing derails the STO. Kicking off the project on time is essential but not easy to achieve, as it requires years of advance planning.

STOs should be approached with the mantra: Expect the unexpected, and plan accordingly. Despite how detailed your plan is, found or discovery work always occurs. If this work is not accounted for, it will impact priorities and the critical path, often resulting in a project running late and over budget. In the oil and gas industry, any extended downtime can run into millions of dollars. With so many external factors impacting an STO, plant operators must assume that problems will be encountered. Building a contingency into the plan will prevent the STO from being derailed when the inevitable hurdle appears.

As part of the planning process, time should be allocated for a detailed project evaluation, which will help inform and shape the next cycle. If such an evaluation is not performed, then the same problems may be repeated during the next event.

The people factor: Invest in external expertise

STOs require large teams, and the makeup of the group is a crucial driver of success. Typically, these events are a very specialized activity that happen every 5 yr, on average. Mature organizations, such as Shell and BP, have access to teams with a wide array of experience in running these events across their organizations. However, the vast majority of providers lack this knowledge base or personnel-power, so adding external expertise is vital. An integrated team consisting of highly skilled specialists who help plan, direct and support the internal team is the right model to adopt.

When it comes to selecting external resources, refiners often pick the cheapest option without ensuring that they are bringing in the right set of skills and expertise. Another way they cut costs is to limit the timing of the specialist contractors, keeping them out of the critical planning stage or the project evaluation step, where key learnings are determined. In the long term, adopting these approaches will drive up costs. External expertise should be approached as a strategic investment rather than an operational overhead.

Human intelligence: Bridge the knowledge gap

Qualified STO leaders are a scarce commodity, so structured training should be used to share their knowledge and expertise within the organization throughout the project. Due to the length of time between each STO at a refinery, there is a risk of investing in people that then move on to new projects, taking the knowledge with them. Capturing and sharing knowledge throughout the duration of the project is critical. Peer reviews are another way of sharing knowledge and learning from other refineries within the organization.

The demographics of teams often add to the knowledge-transfer challenge. Project teams usually consist of a mix of highly skilled workers, close to retirement age, alongside people at the start of their careers. This gap in experience is profound and puts further pressure on the need to transfer knowledge. The oil and gas sector is grappling with this generational issue across the globe.

All technology is not created equal

Technology is another vital component of a successful STO. It plays a critical role when it comes to utilizing the findings and data to replicate that success in future cycles. It is not enough for a company to digitize all its information; the technology deployed must break down data silos and help facilitate the transfer of knowledge between teams.

A technology platform should be selected that is fit for purpose and future-proofed. STOs are complex events that require a mix of scarce skills and a disciplined approach coupled with state-of-the-art software. By adopting the tips outlined, organizations will be on a path to optimizing the cycle. HP

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