Operator procedures: A tale of two gas plants

December 4, 2012

Focus on safetyI have visited several gas plants across the US. Gas plants are complex facilities. They operate at pressure with flammable materials and dangerous products. Gas plants are regulated by Process Safety Management standards to address the inherent hazards of operations.  

When visiting gas plants, I make it a habit to stop in the control room and the maintenance office and engage operations folks in conversation. One thing I like to ask is if the operators can show me the procedure for whatever operation is being done at the time. From there, it’s a discussion about how the procedures are used (or not), who wrote the procedures, do they work and how are they revised.

I had the opportunity to compare two gas plants operating for the same client. They weren’t exactly the same in terms of size, age or complexity. But they were similar enough, operated by the same leadership team in the same country with some rotation of leaders between the sites. However, the approach to procedures varied significantly between the two.

One plant had operations procedures that were known, written and complied with. The other, not so much. Why would there be so much variation between two plants in the same country and the same company?

Complicated words versus simple language

A look back in time provides some insight to the variation. Both sites had procedures. Site One commissioned a revision of all operating procedures and hired a retired plant engineer to write the manuals. And write he did. Volumes of detailed procedures were created. And when he was done, it was all codified in a manual. That sits on a shelf.

Thumbing through the manual, 1989 and 1996 seemed to be the latest revision dates of several policies. I didn’t use Microsoft’s analysis to tell me what grade level the procedures were written. They had long, run-on sentences with big, complicated words and very few illustrations.

Site Two, however, was a different story. The plant just completed a review of their procedures. The review was conducted by the operators that use them. Each page had lots of white space, a few diagrams and was written in simple language.

At Gas Plant Two, operators carried their procedures in a notebook. Each notebook had a page for a signature that verified the employee was competent in that procedure. When competency was achieved, the signature was applied. While there are fancy systems to do the same thing, this actually worked.

Supervision and peers cared about certification. The notebooks made it visible. Other tools, like ‘draw and describe’ and competency tests were used to support the certification process.

Making sure a procedure gets used

It should come as no surprise that Site Two used the procedures and their operators knew what each procedure was and how to execute them.  Leadership at the site focused on the use of procedures as part of their safety walk-abouts. They made it important.

Procedures at Plant Two were also regularly reviewed. They were revised as if they were part of a regular PM schedule. They were also reviewed as part of MoC processes when equipment was added, modified or eliminated. And operations were confident that the procedures were right. Because they signed off on them and created them. The culture of Plant Two was to follow the procedures. If the procedures didn’t work, they were empowered to revise them.

The way to make sure a procedure gets used is to engage operators (and maintenance) in writing the procedures. Ensure it’s written plainly. In a way that reflects how the work actually gets done. It’s easy to delegate the assignment to an ‘expert’ who will get the procedure technically correct, but operationally unusable. Look to the way lean manufacturing describes ‘standard operating procedures.’ Few words. Step by step instructions. Illustrations.

The next time you are out in the field, review the procedures. Is your organization operating like Plant One or like Plant Two?

When writing procedures:

  • Engage the people who will use the procedures to write the procedures
  • Leaders need to engage employees in dialog about procedures
  • Keep the language in ‘operator speak’
  • Process knowledge and certification on procedures should be the same thing
  • If the procedures don’t work, change the procedures