From three-ring binder to web: how NaviTrack helped usher in new era in work processes

Sixteen years is a long time in petrochemicals. In 2000, natural gas prices rose to such a high level that some were questioning the competitiveness of the U.S. ethylene industry. Alberta and the Gulf Coast were the two main areas for feedstock production, with the shale boom a few years away. And the term “work process” would have received an shrug of the shoulders from most project managers.

Fast-forward to 2016 and more than two-thirds of U.S. refineries with more than 200,000 barrels-per-day capacity are using AP-Networks’ work-process deployment tool in turnarounds and capital projects. Around 50 companies use NaviTrack at around 300 facilities including chemical plants, refineries, and a handful of natural-gas plants and offshore platforms. Shell, Chevron, Valero, BP and Phillips66 have made it standard across all of their refineries. The industry as a whole has conducted a turnabout in the way it views work processes.

Brett Schroeder co-founded AP-Networks with George DeBakey in 2000, and is still managing director. When AP-Networks started out, Schroeder told Petrochemical Update, some companies had established work processes for capital projects, but few had thought about applying this to turnarounds.

Those that did have work processes had them “sitting on the shelf in a spreadsheet”, he recalled. “In the old days, people would have it in a three-ring binder and they’d go to the shelf and they’d pull it out and it would be paper-based. Some people would use it and others wouldn’t. It was very ad hoc. And then we went to the spreadsheet and it maybe got a little bit better, but once again it depended on the individual.”

Norm rather than exception

When NaviTrack was introduced in 2008, work processes had become the norm rather than the exception in the industry. According to Schroeder, this is because performance in turnaround and capital projects has traditionally been poor. The situation has improved, he said, but only to the point where about 30% of projects and turnarounds meet their budget, schedules or other objectives.

“You can say a work process should help, and it does, but it only helps if it is deployed effectively and people are using it for transparency and alignment [between team members]," Schroeder said.

NaviTrack is a web-based interface that allows the team or organization to track activities – of which there can be 300-400 in a typical turnaround or capital project. In response to customer demand, the technology now allows users to track deliverable such as execution plans, scope definitions and schedules. It was recently made available for commissioning and start-up work processes in petrochemicals and refining. The software has also been adopted by a few companies in pulp and paper and in power generation.

“The tool makes your progress very transparent, and it allows management to understand very quickly: am I keeping track of what I need to do, or do I have some gaps or am I falling behind? That’s really important because it makes it very transparent. And the other thing is that by having the ability to upload deliverables, you can interrogate the quality of those deliverables."

Finishing the job

In addition to the movement from paper to web, the other major difference observed by Schroeder has been that senior management of these companies now recognize the business value of having these work processes standardized and deployed.

“In the past, this was something “that was done either by the engineering or the maintenance groups, and nobody other than them paid a lot of attention to it,” he said. “But that’s changed. Now ensuring compliance with these processes, making sure we’re doing the right things at the right time: [this] has got a lot more leadership buy-in and active engagement, because they see the business value of doing this.

“If your project overruns big time that really hits the bottom line. If your turnarounds slip, well you’re offline and then the lost profit opportunity is huge.”

A further change in mindset was behind the decision to add the tool that enables management to track deliverables. The Deliverable Workflow tool works along the lines of a responsibility-assignment matrix, or RACI matrix, in that it allows management to sign off on each deliverable as it is completed.

Historically a staff member would complete a task or activity and nobody would review it, according to Schroeder. He said this tool brings rigor into the process to ensure tasks are completed to a high quality and not just by going through the motions.

By Nadav Shemer