Data is key to operational excellence: Petrotechnics president says

New systems that manage day-to-day work at petrochemical and refining facilities could help companies reduce operational risk and improve the productivity of operations, according to Mike Neill, president of Houston-based Petrotechnics USA, which has been providing software solutions to the petrochemical industry for 25 years.

New systems that manage day-to-day work at petrochemical and refining facilities could help companies reduce operational risk and improve the productivity of operations, according to Mike Neill, president of Houston-based Petrotechnics USA, which has been providing software solutions to the petrochemical industry for 25 years.

The need to simultaneously improve the safety and reliability of refining and chemical
plants in the United States is clear as owners and contractors adapt to regulation changes, new companies enter the market, processes become more complex, a less experienced workforce takes over the construction and operations of new facilities, and existing assets enter a more advanced stage of their life.

In an effort to operate effectively and safely, many petrochemical companies have embraced the concept of Operational Excellence, which – as Chevron Phillips Chemical puts it on their website – incorporates systems that support a culture of safety and environmental stewardship that strives to achieve unequaled performance and prevent all serious incidents and fatalities.

While operational excellence is a key concern for company leadership, it is often the decision-making of individual workers in a plant that determines how close a company can come to achieving its goal.

“Operational Excellence is always doing the right thing,” Neill said. “It means being sure that people are making the right decisions, that you have people following the right processes and making good decisions. It is as simple as that. It means you have a consistency to how you operate.”

Operational excellence could reduce the number of adverse events at a plant, increase overall equipment effectiveness and minimize unscheduled downtime, according to Neill. Companies that approach operational excellence tend to have better business performance indicators, both in terms of safety and production efficiency.

This not only increases the return on investment for shareholders, but also helps secure the future of the company’s core business. Becoming an excellent operator requires a significant organizational commitment and the willingness to leap a few hurdles.

According to Neill, having good management systems in place is a prerequisite for operational excellence.

“A company needs to have good processes in place,” he said. “People need to be able to make the right decisions whenever things happen. You can’t always open a book and look at the rules when something goes wrong in a plant. People need to be trained and competent to react to things, and they need the right information to make the right decisions.”

Barriers to achieving operational excellence

“Many companies strive to achieve operational excellence but find it difficult,” Neill said. “Organizationally, most companies operate in a silo, and there is not a lot of sharing of information and data.”

The philosophy of operational excellence, according to many sources, requires that every level and person in an organization pull together to achieve top performance. When a silo mentality exists in a company, the maintenance staff, for example, may be reluctant to seek input from operations teams when planning work schedules.

“Operations is a very dynamic and somewhat ad hoc environment where unexpected events demand reaction,” Neill said.

“How well you are able to react to unexpected events is a measure of how good an operator you are. We need good people who are competent and can make the right decisions during the day. However, we frequently do not equip people with enough information to make good decisions that result in a safe outcome or a more efficient or productive work day.”

According to Neill, in many companies a lot of information still tends to be held close to the vest or be siloed, and is not shared widely in a way that can be usefully leveraged in making important decisions.

“Much of the data that is used for key performance indicators (KPIs) is based on audits that may be months old and tends to be generalized because it reflects an entire facility,” he said, “We can do a much better job of presenting a more synthesized picture of the status of a plant, the levels of risk, and the status of safety barriers so that the people making the day-to-day decisions are better informed.”

Other barriers to operational excellence in the petrochemical industry include not investing adequately in maintenance, high staff turnover, and, sometimes inevitably, poor leadership, Neill said.

Understanding operational risks

Despite significant improvements in safety, the petrochemical and refining industries, like many other industries, present inherent risks to life and property. Petrochemical players have suggested that a new framework for understanding risk in operations needs to be developed.

“From a safety perspective, we have not eliminated major accidents. Despite all that we have done in the industry about safety, and it is a lot, it does not seem to be enough. We know what it is we should be doing in the hydrocarbon industry, but things keep going wrong,” Neill said.

According to him, while the petrochemical industry is currently focused on explaining plant accidents with human factors or gaps in the organizational culture, many preventable human failures are also due to lack of appropriate data for making the right decisions.

Neill said that more effective use of information technology can help companies find their way to operational excellence.

“We are using technology extensively but we can use it smarter,” he said. “The advent of Big Data and the Internet offer great promise to the industry to leverage information in a more timely way. We run the risk, however, of flooding our people with too much information. We need to be careful that we present information in a way that is simplified and easily digestible so that people can process everything and make the right decisions.”

Software solutions for the petrochemical industry

For a number of years, Petrotechnics has provided systems that manage day-to-day work in the petrochemical sector. The systems use simple graphics with icons that show what work is going on in the plant.

Petrotechnics’ operational performance & predictive risk software platform, Proscient, for example, helps hazardous industries reduce operational risk and improve the productivity of operations. The enterprise-ready tool simplifies the complexities of frontline operations by exposing the risks and identifying the barriers to safe and efficient work execution, the company said.

“The system platform was broadened last year to include a risk management process, whereby scheduled work activity is assessed for risk and the work agenda adjusted to minimize risk. For example, hot work during a period when the deluge system is not functioning can be rescheduled for a later time,” Neill said.

“We provide information in simple ways that allow people to make better decisions in managing the work day and planning what work is to come in order to reduce future risk.”

Future of operational excellence

Achieving operational excellence within a company is likely to be a long process, but there are steps companies can make to move along the path, according to Neill.

In addition to having good processes in place, Neill said petrochemical companies need to make the outcomes of a work shift more controlled and predictable.

“With the workforce becoming less experienced as older workers leave the industry, young workers need information technology systems that will help support their decision making. We need to be able to share data more widely,” he added.

The industry also needs to develop a better understanding of risk. Many of the malfunctions leading to process safety incidents in the past decade trace back to common problems, making incident risk analysis at the plant level a key strategy to avoid identical cases.

“We sometimes seem to be dismissive of low-frequency, high-cost, major accidents,” Neill said. “Most of these events were preventable and investigations have shown the succession of safety barrier failures that resulted in the accident. The process safety community is very good at designing safety barrier systems, but we see time and again that maintenance of the barriers was delayed or inadequate for some reason.”

According to Neill, operational excellence can be achieved and advanced in the petrochemical industry if operations and maintenance teams have the information they need to make the right decision at the right time.

Providing that information is a function of leadership operating in a cultural environment that encourages all levels and workers to climb out of the silo and share data with those workers who have a critical need to know.

By Frank Zaworski