Operational readiness: how to ensure your new operation delivers nameplate capacity

By Vanessa Visman | July 20, 2018

There was a time when OR was just another box to be ticked on the list of things to do when a new plant was preparing to go live. Now we know that launching a new operation involves much more than a day of training and a new set of procedures. Even mature, experienced companies often underestimate the amount of attention OR requires and how serious the effects can be if it isn’t done properly.

The need for good OR and the effects of neglecting it are woven through the fabric of major projects that fail to deliver the results they promise. Sometimes we see a project ramp-up, the project team leave, and the plant fail. Why? Because the team members took the knowledge with them when they moved on. There was no effective plan for transitioning the facility to the operations team that would be running it. It’s been estimated that large operations can lose 20 to 40 percent of their net present value because of poor start-up activities—commissioning, ramp-up, and operational readiness.

Every process, operation, and company is different. Still, after decades of helping companies overhaul and then launch their operations, we’ve found certain commonalities that most share. Here are some steps that can help assets reach their nameplate values sooner and more consistently.

Ensure the owner’s team is engaged early and thoroughly. Typically, it takes from 12 to 24 months to get a plant and its people ready to operate. It’s important to engage operations people who are tasked with making the facility work—the CEO, COO, and the Ops General Manager—and do it early.

Give the OR specialists all the time they need. Often, there is a disconnect between what operators need and what’s been done to get the facility ready to start up. So it’s important to bring in your OR specialists early. They’re experienced people who know what level of maturity there should be in these projects, where, and at what point in time or development. They will identify the status quo, where the risks and challenges are, and what’s in already in place.

Need informs design. If the OR piece is brought in too late, there can be a struggle to get the design to reflect the needs of the user groups. This can increase engineering costs, both in dollars and time. Failing to engage the right players is far more expensive to do later in the process, so do it up front. As well as operations staff, pull in those who handle the non-process related work. Address the fundamentals. Where will people be located? Are there training rooms? What tools, equipment, and permits are needed?

Mesh operational methodology and design. Successful operations are born in the build process. Optimally, the commissioning plan and operating strategy are integrated into the design and construction sequencing to minimize project schedule and the risk of design changes.

“Speak” the language of both the project and the operations. Our project managers are a mix of former operations and maintenance people who now work in a project environment. They have started and closed all kinds of plants and facilities, and are experienced from an operations standpoint. Be sure to involve experts like these who understand what you want, know how to articulate it to the project, and have the know-how to create your vision.

Standardize. Everyone must be working to the same standard, as OR quickly becomes a project unto itself. It brings process to operations, driving quality, consistency, and risk management in a non-threatening way that gets all the teams used to delivering work with new systems and routines.

Understand the role of culture. Programs fail or succeed on culture. Done well and with the right attention to change management, projects can transition beautifully into operations. The aim is to empower the team to self-manage the process, while the OR specialists provide the structure and guidance.

Manage expectations. Often, the project team and operations people disconnect when it comes to expectations. Look for the most efficient knowledge-transfer methods. Most project outputs—planning, design, engineering—are OR inputs. Project orchestration doesn’t always understand what OR does and when it’s needed, so an educational piece is important.

Keep it real. You’ll make better estimates about the amount of effort required for OR if you focus on deliverables and link them to goals, actions, and results. Use a management approach and system that creates openness and transparency to tackle issues and challenges.

Optimize resources and capability development. To make the optimal case for employee ramp-up, create a resourced detailed plan that includes a training deployment plan focused on the critical start-up skills and knowledge requirements. Knowing when the time is right to bring on the right people will drive onboarding in a mature way. Having properly prepared, well-trained staff members is one of the best ways to achieve handover and preserve OPEX.

Greenfield or brownfield. Each has its own challenges and shared similarities. With brownfield projects, it’s about integrating to the standards that existing operations are using and aligning to the specifications and expectations of the existing team. With greenfield, setting the standards and having the project and OR align to the new vision is what requires the effort. Green or brown, regardless of the challenges, the project can be a catalyst to drive change.

Experience can be a great teacher. We’ve learned to put preventative mitigation measures in place, anticipating the need to address problems we’ve encountered on other similar projects. Doing so builds that knowledge internally. In the final analysis, it’s about giving our clients the framework they need to work effectively and the tools they need to be successful by themselves.