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Q&A - Steve Beamer

Part 1

Steve joined BP in October 2011 and is responsible for reliability and maintenance on plant assets. This includes global work processes for Work Management, Defect Elimination and Production Efficiency Improvement.

Q You are a keynote presenter at IMC-2012. Your topic is “Think Differently.” Why do you think this is important, not just for reliability, but in areas such as personal health and finance?

A Albert Einstein said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” yet I see people doing this in all aspects of their lives. The only way out of the trap is to step back and look at what’s going on and try to make a correction. You may seek information and then experiment or you may go straight to action and take a trial and error approach. Most people want to have enough money to live a certain lifestyle, they want to be healthy, they want to have good relationships with others and they want to do well in their jobs. I left relationships out of the discussion because all I can offer there is if you recognize that your spouse is always right and you remember birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions, then you are well on your way to success.

Q How does thinking differently in areas such as finance and health tie in with thinking differently in the arena of plant reliability?

A I picked a couple of things that are fairly universal, that I know something about and that have a lot of parallels to draw on. As humans, the past few hundred years have taken us on a great journey of scientific discovery and industrialization, but we have lost a lot of knowledge that was transmitted through tradition, especially in Western society. We are at our infancy in learning about the human body, human behavior, how the brain works, etc. We are relearning and reproving the body of knowledge our ancestors built up over a long time and passed on through tradition as heuristics. We have tried to prove things through science in these areas and are only now realizing there are too many variables to isolate and most of what we learned in the last 150 years is flawed or wrong. These areas all tie together for me because there is a lot of conventional wisdom that is wrong and there are fairly simple processes you can follow and get tremendous results.

Q Thinking differently in a conventional industry setting isn’t often a road to success, especially if you are not in a position of power. How can this approach be of benefit if you are not in power?

A When you think differently, you distance yourself from the crowd. It is quite easy to sound outspoken and come across as negative. Many people and organizations are very comfortable with their identity and you challenge that if you move too quickly or come across as smarter than others or above the fray. You need to establish your credibility by helping people. Present a single idea in a way like, “This doesn’t seem to be working well. Could we try to do this one thing a little differently and see if it will work?” Change a few people first and build momentum. Always be conscious of the politics of the organization and make sure you are making your boss look good instead of making him or her look stupid. Be a likeable geek and not an outspoken anarchist. Show leadership by influencing others and changing behaviors.

Q Is conventional wisdom really helpful, or is it clouded with self interests portraying their solution as the best of the best?

A Conventional wisdom is usually based on common experiences of what has been successful in the past. If we think of Nasim Taleb’s story of the turkey in his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the turkey gets fed every day for most of the year, is sheltered and gets to live a pretty good life, but just before Thanksgiving (in the United States), he gets his head cut off and shipped off to be somebody’s dinner. The conventional wisdom in this case is if you hang around here, life will be good. In reality, the turkey should be looking for a way out. Conventional wisdom is not always bad. I am suggesting that it should not be taken for granted and the context of the situation should be evaluated to make sure it still applies.

As an alternate thought: After World War II, the U.S. was one of a few industrialized nations in the world where the fighting did not occur on our soil. Our factories were new and we had a lot of trained workers. As the world struggled to rebuild itself, we supplied everybody. Our companies did well. People bought whatever we made. The stock prices of companies went up for a period of 20 plus years. Most of our parents grew up in this era. If you bought stocks of good companies and held on to them, they went up. Once all the competition returned to the world and globalization became more prevalent, this conventional wisdom of “buy and hold” is not true any more.

Q How do you separate the good from the not so good information represented as conventional wisdom?

A You think differently. You ask the questions: Where is this information coming from? Is somebody else benefiting from telling me this? What’s the worse thing that could happen if I am wrong? (My costs go up, my health degrades, or I lose money in the market are often the answers.) Why does this work? Use your own knowledge and experience to test the ideas and seek others who have successfully done it. Why is it that Warren Buffett is the only guy who has become a billionaire by buying and holding companies? Maybe he is the statistical anomaly or maybe there’s more to the story that we don’t know about. Do you have everything he has to replicate his success?

Q There are a lot of people who can help you in the areas of health, finance and plant reliability. How do you determine who can really help when everyone says what they offer is what you need?

A First, I think that most people and companies have good intentions. They really believe what they are telling you and they really want to help. Second, you have to put the effort in yourself; nobody can do it for you. This is where many organizations come in. They hire the consultant and the consultant does everything and it works until the consultant leaves and then it falls apart. There is no substitute for discipline and accountability. Look for help from successful people and companies who fit your style or your company’s culture. Look for people who want to teach you to fish. Look for companies that have successful engagements and then move on to new clients over and over again. If a company says, “XYZ has been helping us improve our maintenance for years, they’re really great,” this is a red flag for me.

Q You mention that thinking differently requires a culture change. What does that mean and how is it accomplished?

A For you personally, thinking differently requires that you discard an old way of thinking or a habit and replace it with a new one. That’s tough to do sometimes. For organizations, it is a huge disturbance that impacts morale by driving up uncertainty. It changes the power structure because different behaviors are rewarded that threaten those who have achieved the most through the old expected behaviors.

You change it by being brave, setting new standards, explaining why and appealing to people’s emotions.

Q Which, in your opinion, is most important, the process to achieve the outcome or the outcome of the effort?

A Outcomes can be achieved in the short term in many different ways, some good and some bad. Many managers take advantage of this and make themselves look good by damaging the company in the long term because they know they will be rewarded for the outcome, but they will be gone when the backlash occurs. The only way to make the outcome sustainable is to follow and stick to a process that manages the inputs. You can eat a strictly vegetarian diet with no white food (sugar, bread, potatoes, soft drinks, etc.) for a few weeks and have dramatic results on your cholesterol numbers when you go for your blood test, but that doesn’t make you healthy for the long term. You can make one big trade and get lucky and make a lot of money, but that doesn’t make you a financial success. You can stop doing maintenance and dramatically cut your costs without impacting your reliability that much for a couple of years, but don’t expect your company to come out on top if you do it.

Q How do you get leadership to provide vision and direction in thinking differently about plant reliability when they are locked into a “break it – fix it” mode?

A This is a tough one. In reality, all you need from leaders is for them to send the right messages to the organization by setting the right priorities, holding the course and demonstrating behavior that is consistent with the message. It’s nice if you can get them to understand it and sometimes it’s easier if you show them. But if you can just get them to change what they say and how they act, that’s all you really need. For example, when something breaks, the operational leader usually asks, “When will we get that back on line?” That question translates to the organization as, “Get it back as quickly as you can!” If you can change that to, “I need to understand why that failed before we start it up again because we don’t want this to happen to us again,” the leader can now convey a sense of urgency to finding out why it failed and make an informed, business-driven decision about how to repair it and get it back on line.

Q Once you get people thinking differently, how do you sustain the process? This seems to be an easy task when things are going well, but not so easy during hard times.

A To me, this is the role of leadership. The test of a true leader is staying the course in bad times. Usually, once you get through the initial installation and start seeing the benefits, people’s habits change and it sustains itself. Nobody wants to go back to the old ways. Winston Ledet can give you a great example of this with the Lima, Ohio, refinery. The turnaround there happened over 10 years ago and despite two changes of ownership, the good practices and high performance remain embedded in the organization.

Q Conventional wisdom tells us planning and scheduling, PM, PdM and other similar processes will improve plant reliability, but these are just tasks. What is required to have these tasks lead to successful outcomes?

A The Manufacturing Game™ references four stable domains of maintenance, which I paraphrase as:

  • Regressive (death spiral) - slash costs and do as little repair as possible to continue to run.
  • Reactive (most common) - react to defects and fix things as they break.
  • Proactive (planned, scheduled, PM, PdM) - anticipate defects and fix them before they break so there are no surprises. This is the least stable domain because if too many things break in a short period of time, you fall back to reactive and must dig out again.
  • “Don’t Just Fix It - Improve It” (continuous improvement) - proactive, plus an effort to slow the rate of defects coming into the system by removing known defects.

In order to have these tasks lead to successful outcomes, I believe the organization has to see maintenance as a value-adding process and engage the whole organization in removing defects. It’s a cross-functional contact sport. You must break down organizational silos and get people to work together and talk to each other to make this stick.

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