Alarm Management: Seize the Momentous

Oct. 20, 2008
Why Settle for Good Enough When Significant and Sustainable Alarm Management Change Is within Reach?

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor, Pharma Manufacturing

Alarm management is often more a source of frustration than of inspiration. Those who undertake to improve their alarm management programs and processes typically set out to reduce the number of alarms occurring within a given timeframe. And yet, as Eli Lilly’s Alan Phipps noted at the recent ISA Expo 2008 in Houston, why set out to improve your alarm management unless you’re striving for real and lasting change—sustained cultural and procedural change. “The momentous is the new paradigm,” Phipps preached in Houston, while highlighting the dictionary definition of momentous: “of great and far-reaching importance or consequence.”

The point, says Phipps, is not just to set lofty goals. It’s that often alarm management improvement projects have short-term benefits but offer only symptomatic rather than systemic relief. In the long-run, these projects can be counterproductive and limiting to plant improvement.

Phipps was one of three alarm management experts who spoke at the Houston show. The two others are giants in the field: Bill Hollifield of PAS, Inc., co-author of the main PAS and ISA books on the subject; and Steve Apple of TiPS, Inc.

We’ll share best practices from all three in the upcoming weeks. Here we summarize Phipps’ philosophy:

The Case for Momentous Improvement in Your Alarm Management System

Phipps began his talk with an all-too-common scenario: Your plant has a problem. There are too many alarms going off, too often, to the point that you can’t deal with all of them. Something must be done fast, and as cheaply as possible. An ad hoc team is put together to deal with the overabundance of alarms, to fix them so they won’t happen again. The team does so successfully, and makes plans to reconvene in a year to make sure that the alarm issue is still under control.

Problem solved? Not in the least, Phipps says—rather, a huge opportunity missed. What this team has done is simply a band-aid solution and will not improve the plant’s performance in the long run. What’s needed in this facility, and in alarm management in general Phipps believes, is a paradigm shift focusing on three areas:


Today’s attitude is frequently that alarms are annoying and add no real value to the plant, Phipps says. We have way too many alarms, calling attention to problems, but of little use beyond that.

The paradigm shift: Our attitude should be that alarms are a tool, says Phipps. There are lots of things that could be improved within the plant, and alarms provide the opportunity, the signal, to do that. In doing so, they save us time and money.


Today’s paradigm: Fix the critical alarms first. Rationalize bad actions. Set goals for alarm reduction. Do what feels right by gut instinct. Initiate an alarm management project, and make improvements via incident review.

The new paradigm emphasizes the opportunity. Our alarms are out of control. Redesign the entire system. Make a comprehensive plan for redesign. Ask ourselves, how can we use the alarms as an effective tool, guided by fundamental principles not by instinct?


Today: 75% reduction in alarms is pretty good. Maybe the COO sent a plaque to recognize the success. Savings of time and money have been documented. KPI targets were achieved.

These sound like admirable results, but the new paradigm says: Let’s look at the quality of our alarms (e.g., how many of our total are nuisance alarms?). We’ve rationalized and documented the problem. The COO sent us a plaque, and sent us to other plants to teach best practices. We are actively managing our alarms with a control plan (not waiting for a project to come along). We are using alarms as forward indicators that the plant has improvement opportunities.

Phipps’ colleague at Lilly, Steve Ghera, a Six Sigma Black Belt, has summed up this new philosophy as such: “Your alarm system should be an opportunity hunter for operational improvement.”

Getting to the new paradigm is not without challenges. Phipps tells the story of one plant that set about to completely revamp its alarm management system. Within the first few weeks, there were more alarms than the plant had ever had before. Doubts arose. Eventually, however, operations trended down to zero alarms. And more importantly, a process improvement opportunity was identified and capitalized upon.

Phipps and colleagues have sought to implement this new version of alarm management within Lilly, and results have been promising: Management is starting to embrace momentous change for alarm management, Phipps says. The corporate culture is shifting, and process engineers and operations professionals are both engaged in the alarm management process. Success is being measured by continuous and sustained improvement, not by how many alarms have been eliminated.

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