Maintenance heroism in the time of hurricanes

Oct. 19, 2006
Plant Services' Plant of the Year survived Hurricane Katrina, but it isn't a story fit for Hollywood scripts. Instead, says Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker in his latest column, it's a story that illustrates how maintenance should be conducted.

When we decided to find a Katrina survivor for our Plant of the Year, we anticipated a story about a great fight – a big emergency shutdown as high winds tore the roof off, with operators and millwrights clinging to pipes in rising waters while using huge wrenches to crank the shutdown valves and spare the town from insidious leaks of deadly toxins. Mucky floodwaters frantically pumped to access and repair drowned, but essential equipment. Snakes in the motor control centers. Millions of dollars in clean/repair/replace triage.

Vendors risking their lives, taking their personal trucks – better yet, boats – to hunt down and fetch the critical replacement parts needed to get the plant running. Lassie leading us to the broken wires so Timmy and his family will be saved.

We expected to find that kind of story because here in the upper Midwest, that’s the kind of stories we heard. From what we were told, preparations were nonexistent or woefully inadequate. Afterwards, governments and agencies failed, and the population was left foraging in infested mud for water, food and shelter.

And, OK, I admit it, I was thrilled by the idea of that kind of story. It’s exciting, it’s compelling reading, and it makes maintenance people heroes of the first order -- strong, brave, acting on instinct to save lives and keep the plant running. Hollywood blockbuster heroes, industrial maintenance-style.

So we asked around to identify the biggest, most complicated, most critical plant in Katrina’s path. It had to make a product everybody understands, wants and needs, hurricane or not. Being capable of producing big explosions, huge balls of flame and environmental debacles of historic proportions would earn extra points, and if it could cripple the U.S. economy by staying offline too long, so much the better. It had to have taken a direct hit, and, of course, the maintenance department had to be heroes.

We found the plant, but it came with a completely different story. You can read all about it starting on page 32.

You hear a lot about maintenance departments being in a reactive, or firefighting, mode, and I’ve worked in a plant where firefighting was the predominant maintenance mentality. Industrial maintenance has traditionally attracted personalities that like variety, excitement and personal challenges. Getting the line back up is a lot more visible, and to most traditional maintenance people, a lot more satisfying than meetings, paperwork and studying charts of key performance indicators.

It’s a lot more fun to investigate a smoking pile of twisted metal than to interpret thermographs, and who wouldn’t rather see a spun bearing and the ground gears that go with it than spend time trying to tell if a vibration spectrum means trouble – or not. Motor monitoring? Real maintenance men would prefer a root canal.

But moving from breakdown to preventive to predictive, from reactive to proactive, from unplanned to carefully planned, is the challenge of our time. It takes leadership that’s too rare, culture change that’s too difficult, and economics that are too hard to explain to the guys with the money, but we have to get there.

I’ve exhorted each and every reader to start with his or her own sphere of influence, and strive to make an incremental change – today – to move their plant away from firefighting and toward more effective planned maintenance. The result will be lower costs, higher productivity and a quiet sense of pride that is much different from Hollywood heroism, but at least as satisfying.

It’s not a short-term project. According to the experts I’ve heard, any initiative that calls for culture change and a solid plan to move a plant from at or below today’s average performance to a level that will be competitive five or 10 years from now is going to take, well, five to 10 years.

While it makes sense to implement from the bottom up, the necessary vision and leadership for lasting change comes from the top down. Plant Services is joining many other organizations in efforts to increase upper-level manufacturing management’s awareness and understanding of the role good maintenance practices (and investments) play in profitability. We’re trying to get them to where they can smell the money.

The story of how Chevron’s Pascagoula Refinery handled Katrina really goes back to 1998 and the aftermath of Hurricane Georges. Proactive, planned, predictive actions taken since then contributed mightily to minimize Katrina’s damage, and enabled the plant and its personnel to make the winning performance described in our cover story.
Maybe snakes in the motor control centers are what it takes.

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