It was a weird, engaging little game.
During the ABB Customer World 2019 panel discussion “Innovation in Project Execution Strategies,” VP of Engineering with BP’s Global Projects Organization Richard Mortimer displayed photos of a half dozen different electrical plugs, from the two-pronged models familiar to Americans to bizarro models that looked like they came from some alternate reality.
Mortimer challenged the audience to name the country of origin of each plug. Most guesses were wrong, even for those models that were the official, standard electrical plug for large parts of the planet.
The point? Customization causes confusion. Standards are oftentimes ridiculous. We must all simplify our approaches to the basic elements of manufacturing.
This panel agreed that that process of simplification starts at the start of projects, when execution strategies are developed and resources and partners are marshalled. The BP VP was joined on this panel by David Barnes, ABB industry network leader for oil and gas, and Sandy Vasser, retired IC&E manager with ExxonMobil. The trio shared horror stories of unnecessary project complexity and shared solutions to clean up the messes endemic to megaprojects in the world of oil and gas.
The trio recalled a period in the late 1990s when technology was evolving rapidly—open-system concepts, digital tools becoming more available—yet across industry, the collective success rate at predicting costs, overruns and completion dates, especially for the growing number of megaprojects, continued to suffer.
Continued project delivery difficulties were not warmly received by the C-suite—or even fully understood by the rank and file. Vasser joked that a KPI with his team was how often he had to meet with executives to explain change-orders, budget overruns and delays. To address these issues once and for all, ExxonMobil Development Company set about collecting best practices from past projects and the larger industry, then developing training programs and procedures around those learnings.
The result? “It wasn’t as easy as we thought,” Vasser admitted. Project complexity is a tough nut to crack. “The problem was the procedures and design practices we’d created decades ago when projects were smaller, less complex, more local. Those practices just didn’t work anymore.”
So, they took aim at the status quo, creating an initiative titled “It Just Happens,” with the mission of killing practices deemed obsolete and automating, automating, automating.
Getting suppliers on board was key—explaining to them the pain points and challenging them to create new project-delivery methodologies and products. Vasser provided as an example ABB’s Select I/O offering and xStream collaborative engineering environment that were created partly in response to this initiative. These new technologies, together with new work processes, have been key to severing the design dependencies between automation hardware and software that led to delays. “It took automation engineering off the critical path,” Vasser said.
Success stories like that are hard won. “The inertia in most product organizations and the resistance to the full use of new technology would amaze you,” said Mortimer. “Human resistance is a great hurdle.”
That pushback, though, can also uncover inefficiencies. Vasser noted how young employees routinely questioned seasoned colleagues about ExxonMobil processes. Why do we do it like this? Is that process really necessary?
“It made us realize that we didn’t need to do some of the things we had been doing,” he explained.
Changing what has become the norm
All three panelists lamented how in massive endeavors in the oil and gas space, busted budgets and missed deadlines were…are…far too commonplace. The fix is more than just tinkering with execution plans. “It requires thinking completely differently about the process,” said Vasser, as his fellow panelists nodded in agreement. “All of a sudden it clicked that technology could solve these problems.”
Simplifying the ordering process. Cleaning up the way hardware is stored during projects. Convincing suppliers to accept standards with no wiggle room for unnecessary customization.
After his slide illustrating the ridiculous collection of electrical plugs, Mortimer touched on JIP33, a joint-industry program that presents a new, standardized process for procuring equipment. He detailed a recent meeting of the CEOs of the major oil/gas companies focused solely on JIP33. “They realize the importance of this issue and the need to do something better,” he said with hope in his voice.
“It’s about getting back to basics,” Mortimer continued. “Removing the gross inefficiencies that have come into this industry. It’s remarkably difficult.”
Echoed Vasser, “It gets back to defining what problems continue to exist and what inefficiencies remain in organizations and operations, then identifying solutions, a lot of which are digital. We’ve gotten too accustomed to customization.”