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by Heinz P. Bloch

Author’s Note: While I’m solely responsible for this article, I am also entirely indebted to a process hazard analysis and loss control engineer (PHA/LCE) at a major refinery. In his contributed material, he is not disclosing anything of a proprietary nature. Still, it’s a sign of the times that he has to remain anonymous. Perhaps it’s because his expressions contain a measure of mild irony as he invades the comfort zone of equipment reliability engineers (REs). He quite obviously takes issue with their custom of limiting their work to mere analysis and recommendations. The REs, he notes, then consider their job done and let managers make decisions, some right and some wrong. This PHA/LCE alerts us to a stack of serious problems that can result from engineers’ reluctance to pursue certain issues beyond just recommendations. He pleads with management to develop a challenge culture, a collaborative effort that benefits all sides.

A Defective Challenge Culture

In reality, management seldom understands what seems obvious to the technical staff. Try to reset your memory and recall the space shuttle disasters. In the first of two instances, canceling a launch was viewed as a multimillion dollar decision, one that only could be made if management thought they could explain their rationale to President Ronald Reagan, who would certainly give them (management) a courtesy call to find out why they (management) had canceled the launch and sent Christa McAuliffe home. But management didn't understand the information they were given. And because of their defective challenge culture, questioning it didn't help either. So, they launched the spacecraft. For as long as it takes to say, "See? We told you so!" the technical staff felt vindicated. But then the anguish set in over what they had allowed management to do. There can be no question that management would have acted responsibly on the information if they had understood it. Clearly, some agency or management group had failed to develop a healthy challenge culture. This is one of the reasons why seven (and, ultimately, 14) astronauts died.

We see this defective culture everywhere in industry today. It's easy to spot in news reports that portray the technical staff as the victim and management as the villain. We saw it on the deck of the Deepwater Horizon structure and a few years ago in the hallways of Apple Inc., where technical competence abounds. No reasonable person could be persuaded that Steve Jobs was a ruthless autocrat bent on intentionally releasing a defective phone despite the engineers' pleas to fix an antenna problem. Indeed, buying into the "deaf dictator scenario" just doesn't make sense.

We all have similar and parallel stories to tell about machines and other assets in major process plants. There have been incidents and near misses, and many of these are repeat events because of a defective challenge culture. As noted before, a defective challenge culture creates a deep chasm between management and technical staff.

Considering the potential process safety consequences that a defective challenge culture represents to the process industries, both engineers and managers should take time to reflect on the purpose of their respective job functions. Are you managers really smarter than your technical staff, just keeping them around for inflicting torture and throwing away money? Probably not. Like most managers, you recognize that the technical staff represents a certain skillset that you need to make good decisions. You expect them to protect you from making bad decisions that would interfere with your business commitments and objectives.

Shouldering Accountability

Reliability engineers must shoulder this accountability. You, the RE, expect management to act responsibly on the information you provide. But this may require reordering and rephrasing your information in ways that management can understand. (Remember, you more than likely have an intellectual advantage over them.) If management challenges your data, don't retreat or try to read between the lines. Request more time, if needed, to fine-tune your analysis and then make your case again. At the end of the discussion, both you and management should be satisfied that good engineering judgment has prevailed. Both sides must be comfortable with the decision and, remember, both sides share common accountability.

Tough decisions are tough for a reason. The reason is, well, because they are not easy. Easy decisions are usually straightforward enough so they don't need much technical support. In other words, even a manager can make them. A dedicated professional adds value by helping management convert a tough decision into the right decision. Thankfully, we are not left to our own devices in helping management understand the information they need to make the right decision. As a reliability professional, it's your responsibility to provide all pertinent information in a manner that others can understand. Others have done so long before you; they have mapped the way and described the tools. Do you have all the tools you need to help management wisely think through the tough decisions? Maybe it's time for you to do more reading, work with a mentor, or uncover other responsible ways of conveying to management the risk associated with allowing repeat failures, or whatever else that has the potential to cause anguish.

Accelerating Desperately Needed Change

Here, then, are action steps that good managers are, or should be, actively pursuing:

  • Good managers insist that technical employees go beyond guesswork and always substantiate their concerns. In other words, good managers ask their employees to logically explain "concerns" and require follow-up to turn them into "non-concerns."
  • The best managers abandon the destructive short-range-profit view and take a longer-range approach. Thus, they make conscious and consistent efforts for knowledge progression and successor planning. They keep their best technical employees from seeking employment elsewhere by implementing a dual ladder of advancement - one administrative and the other technical. They recognize that claims of always being able to hire an outside contractor may be true for your office interior painting and lawn care program, but are fallacious and untrue for many technical issues or disciplines!
  • Top companies stretch the tenure of their in-house experts and future executives. In other words, cycling a talented individual through fourteen departments in five or six years is almost certain to produce extremely shallow areas of expertise and superficial thinkers. Good managers groom talent, not arrogant generalists.
  • Top managers offset the benefits of past cultures with the need to forge a new culture. They will not allow employees to interact by way of a flood of e-mails alone. Good managers know that hours spent in posturing and responding to internal e-mail is rarely - if ever - adding value.

Indeed, then, better management is needed at many facilities to achieve long-term equipment reliability and its related plant profitability objectives. "Reliability initiatives" and similar pursuits will fail where there is no trained or highly experienced workforce. Claims that you can always hire a competent outsider are simply not supported by the facts. Competent outsiders are a dying breed, and the few that are left will not accept the pay that an unqualified individual will accept.

Plants where training is an afterthought, or where training is conducted by individuals whose "know-how" is simply not up-to-date, are unable to reach their true safety, reliability and profitability potential. Some of these trainers spend all too much time on discussing maintenance philosophies. What is needed are the explanation and implementation of discrete steps that must be taken on the component and work procedure level. Regrettably, only the very best facilities are implementing the right steps.

Finally, broad communication across functional disciplines is needed. Such seemingly autonomous groups as operations, maintenance, project, purchasing and reliability/technical can obviously affect equipment reliability, safety and profitability. However, none of these groups should ever be allowed to make far-reaching decisions without input from the various related (or affected) disciplines or functional areas. Holding people accountable is of extreme importance here. So, why not start with asking your reliability professionals to explain why the mean time between failures (MTBF) of pumps at your facility differs so much from that of the competition? Will you let these professionals guess or will you compel them to read? The answers are out there! Make your technical staff challenge managers by submitting solid facts and by mapping out logical remedial steps and intelligent alternatives. That's what one expects from medical professionals and should demand from one's equipment or maintenance-technical professionals.

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Heinz Bloch

Heinz P. Bloch is a professional engineer with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa. He advises process and power plants worldwide on reliability improvement and maintenance cost reduction opportunities. Heinz is the author of 17 full-length texts and over 400 papers and technical articles. His most recent texts include "A Practical Guide to Compressor Technology" (2006, John Wiley & Sons, NY, ISBN 0-471-727930-8); "Pump User's Handbook: Life Extension," (2006, Fairmont Publishing Company, Lilburn, ISBN 0-88173-517-5) and "Machinery Uptime Improvement," (2006, Elsevier-Butterworth-Heinemann, Stoneham, MA, ISBN 0-7506-7725-2)

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