Get with the right plan

The process of developing a strategic automation plan isn’t terribly complicated, and despite the number of different available models, each one uses similar techniques and yields similar results.

By Steve Elwart, Ergon Refining, Maurice Wilkins, and Steve Loranger

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By Steve Elwart, Ergon Refining, with  Maurice Wilkins, and Steve Loranger

Strategic PlanningStrategic planning is enjoying a revival among many corporate executives, and rightfully so. However, when automation planning isn’t an integral part of corporate strategic planning activities, significant improvement opportunities and benefits can be completely overlooked and/or not fully realized.

Strategic planning shouldn’t be confused with long-range planning. Long-range planning assumes that current knowledge about future conditions is sufficiently reliable to ensure that a plan remains stable over the duration of its implementation. Strategic planning, on the other hand, assumes that the organization exists in a dynamic environment, where the ability to be agile and responsive is paramount to the company’s success. While a strategic automation plan should cover eight to 10 years, it must be reviewed and updated annually to accommodate business and technology dynamics.

The steps necessary to create a strategic automation plan are fairly straightforward. However, the tasks in each step aren’t easy or quick, and some of the tasks may be accomplished best by using outside resources.

Data Hell?

Getting Started
Nearly every automation system installed for more than five years suffers from a patchwork of hardware additions and deletions, control strategy changes and miscellaneous integration solutions. Operators deal with alarms that are no longer appropriate and procedures that are out of date. Managers find it increasingly difficult to determine production performance during the previous 24 hours.

In such an environment, it’s safe to say that automation system investments are no longer optimized to help react to dynamic business conditions. The problem is that most companies don’t fully realize this until they establish a base case—a picture of where they are right now.

Not only does the base case frequently reveal some surprises—both positive and negative—but it also provides critical information that eventually helps answer the question, “What are the risks to our business if we do nothing?”

Developing a base-case picture requires dedicating a team to reviewing historical data, process flow diagrams, material balance calculations, operator logs and procedures, number and location of different data sources, how reports are created and used, and other activities appropriate to completing a “where we are right now” audit.

While it’s possible to use multiple interview teams, allowing the same team adequate time to conduct all the interviews often exposes weaknesses that might otherwise be overlooked, and it can provide a broader perspective of what needs to be addressed in the base case, as well as the strategic automation plan.

Discovery
Discovery is about setting aside preconceived notions. Discovery is about conducting investigations that reveal business improvement opportunities. Discovery is about asking a lot of open-ended questions and faithfully following where the answers lead.

It’s within the discovery process that outsiders (consultants or employees from another location) often produce more complete and often surprising findings than do insiders.

Insiders know the bumps and warts. They’re aware of the culture. They may even be part of a problem. So, expecting insiders to objectively complete interviews without injecting their own interpretations into the responses is expecting a lot.

One effective interview process involves using a seasoned interviewer and a rookie. The advantage of such an interview team is that the seasoned interviewer knows what questions to ask in order to kick-start a conversation, while the rookie, who may be unfamiliar with the industry and process will unknowingly ask clarification questions that often provide much-needed details.

For example, place a seasoned interviewer and a newbie in a break room with a handful of operators and technicians and start by asking, “What was the worst shift you ever had to work in this facility?”

Pretty quickly, the stories are flying, and people are interrupting with “Oh, it didn’t happen like that,” or “That’s nothing, let me tell you about…,” and then the rookie says, “I don’t understand. Tell me why that’s such a big deal?” That’s when the experienced operators and technicians transition into mentors, and begin diving into details that may eventually become gold.

When you resist injecting your own stories and listen closely, what you’ll take away from such interviews is a list of clues—possibilities you need to investigate until you have identified the root cause or determined that the clue is truly a myth.

It’s understandable why it’s important to determine the root cause, but it’s equally important to determine if “myths” are real or not.

Real myths are frequently the result of an occasional alignment of seemingly unrelated events. However, until actually proven to be a myth, you must assume there’s validity in the “nuggets” operators have been collecting over the years. Seek out the most senior people, and shake and sift those nuggets until either there’s nothing left or the “gold” is revealed.

Typically, discovery interviews begin as far up the organizational ladder as the interviewers can reach. It’s at these top echelons that information strategic to the overall success of the business is defined and discussed. But, it’s also important to check “low,” and validate with operations to ensure alignment from top to bottom. For example, one refinery was operating exceptionally well, and executives were taking a great deal of the credit. During interviews with operators, the consultant learned that the operators were running the plant completely differently than the executives had defined. In other words, it was the operators’ initiative that was contributing to the plant’s success.

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