Remember People when Benchmarking and Applying Best Practices

When you become ill you seek a doctor's advice to get well. The doctor reviews the symptoms, performs an examination, diagnoses the problem, and prescribes the medicine necessary to get you feeling better. But what do you do when your business is ill?


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SIDEBAR: Best practice groups


When you become ill you seek a doctor's advice to get well. The doctor reviews the symptoms, performs an examination, diagnoses the problem, and prescribes the medicine necessary to get you feeling better. But what do you do when your business is ill? How do evaluate the symptoms to identify the root cause of the illness, and where do you focus your attention to achieve wellness?


Several companies, including Millennium Specialty Chemicals (Jacksonville, FL), are turning to specialist companies, such as Accenture (Philadelphia, PA) and Breakthrough Process Consulting (BPC, Wimborne, UK ) to help with the examination, diagnosis, and pre-scription. Consultants provide a ''fresh set of eyes'' to diagnose a problem and then help companies swallow the ''right medicine,'' thus avoiding commitment of resources on the wrong things. Contrary to popular myth, not all business problems are solved simply by spending money on newer, faster, sexier technology. Often, the medicine specialists prescribe requires changing the way people do things.


Apply a holistic approach


The seemingly continuous wave ofreplaced and will cost dearly to obtain from an outside company.


Training dollars are another common target of budget cuts-often without the foresight to see the potential negative impact of using untrained people.


In the manufacturing sector, fewer people are pursing manufacturing automation careers, thus making it more difficult for control and instrumentation technology investments to achieve full potential.


The result of an unsteady, under-trained workforce with under-utilized technology has become the epidemic of the manufacturing sector. Curing one of the causes doesn't eradicate the epidemic. Eradication requires a holistic approach.


One relevant ''illness story'' occurred several years ago at a large chemical company. The business had invested several million dollars in new DCS (distributed control system) and advanced control technologies, but management was frustrated that expected paybacks were not being realized.


A thorough examination confirmed the site had invested in very advanced technologies, but had made across-the-board cutbacks in personnel and training.


To help improve its return on the automation investment, the company had contracted third-party services to apply advanced controls, yet no one worked with the contractor on technology deployment or eventual transfer to operations, so the contractor was quietly creating a permanent site presence.


People are important


Today's advanced computer-based control and instrumentation systems has many companies believing people are no longer important or even needed to run processes. That may hold true in a few low-tech manufacturing operations, but most production operations are already highly complex and becoming more so every day.


Operational philosophies that downplay the importance of the operator are as misguided as having the commercial airline industry employing a philosophy that downplays the importance of the pilot.


Most frequent flyers understand that much of the time the human pilot is present, they are there to monitor the integrity of flight control systems, ensure the ''auto'' pilot maintains the desired (flight plan) control of the aircraft, and is ready to assume manual control in the event of an abnormal situation.


The skills are different, but flying an airplane and being responsible for the minute-to-minute operation of a complex manufacturing process have many similarities. Both require frequent, high-quality training exercises, including ''what if'' and emergency scenarios.


Airline pilot performance is measured and rated, so manufacturing plant operator training also should be measured and rated-however it seldom is.


One chemical company felt its processes were experiencing an unusually high number of process upsets and employed BPC to help assess and enhance its operator- and engineer-training programs with an emphasis on ensuring the correct skills were being applied at the correct impact point.


Among the assessment findings was a need to increase the involvement of panel-board operators in the duties and activities of outside (field) operators. A seemingly obvious activity, but one that was lacking and found to be the source of several abnormal operational situations.


Had the panel-board and field operators (people) not been involved in the assessment, the training programs would likely not have been as well focused on resolving process upset root causes.


Finding a balance


Getting the best business benefits from a long-term investment in automation technology involves a balance between the chosen technology and the skills applied to its use, development, support, and sponsorship. From a business perspective, management must encourage and support an automation strategy and vision. Such a strategy often doesn't include requirements to maintain the latest and greatest technology. Instead, the strategy defines technology needs that are necessary to achieve defined business objectives.


That said, technology investments must include investments for on-going training and support for on- and off-site personnel, as well as applying standardized approaches to achieve the best value from on-site people.


For example, a site with extensive batch processing installs the current market leading DCS system, using ANSI/ISA S88 models and methods, implemented on the latest Microsoft Windows platform. Decision-makers failed to invest in the necessary skills to exploit the system's value and isn't likely to obtain anticipated business returns on the investment.


A state-of-the-art control system should be least valuable when it's first delivered. Beyond that first day, process enhancement and optimization opportunities should be identified and implemented with regularity. However, without adequate process and system skills, enhancement opportunities remain unrealized, thus calling into question the reason to make investments in sophisticated control system technology.


The inverse can also be true. Making investment in the acquisition and training of highly qualified people without providing the technology necessary to identify, analyze, and develop enhancement opportunities leads to people and their acquired knowledge leaving-possibly to a competitor.


From a good business practice perspective, ensuring executive level management acknowledges and supports budgets for the automation technology and staffing requirements is paramount to long-term success of the strategy.


Companies that fail to develop and support a strategic operational and automation plan that's tightly interwoven with defined business objectives is likely spending money in all the wrong places.


Where we are heading


During the 2002 Fisher-Rosemount user group meeting, Emerson Performance Solutions senior vp, David Beckmann presented ''Upskilling the Corporation.'' Mr. Beckman says industry and schools are adversely affecting the ability of businesses to extract opportunities from its processes and from its control and instrumentation investments.


Within the processing industries, Mr. Beckman said we have already or soon will experience:


  • Reduction in corporate engineering staffs by as much as 80%;

  • Retirement of nearly 80% of its knowledgeable workforce in the next five years; and

  • An increasing reticence among the workforce to learn and embrace new methods.

Mr. Beckman says, ''We have reached the limits where downsizing can be used to increase business profits. Further downsizing efforts will be counterproductive. We must look to our people as critical assets to achieving performance improvement endeavors. And, we must employ new methods in training and re-training the workforce.''


Schools, specifically universities, are the second element Mr. Beckman claims are adversely affecting the processing industries. To illustrate his point, Mr. Beckman shares that:


  • No single North American university offers an adequate curriculum in control theory;

  • Current and future generations of students aren't interested in making the plant-floor their office or process control their career; and

  • In an unscientific poll of university students who had successfully completed control theory classes, few could describe the function of ''D'' in a PID (proportional, integral, derivative) controller. [For several PID tutorials, go to .]

To overcome these obstacles, industry must take a strong hand in convincing academia there is a critical shortage of control specialists. And companies (end-user and supplier alike) must provide greater support to universities to develop the future workforce. Not just with donations of equipment and money, but with assistance in understanding industry's needs and helping to develop curriculum that addresses those needs.


We are already faced with a situation where increasingly better tools are available to help improve operational performance. However, there are fewer and fewer people able to properly apply these tools. Unfortunately, few executives and senior level managers realize the magnitude of the problem.


Importance of best practices


People are every bit as important as the technology when it comes to getting the most from a site's operations. However, as has been illustrated, a balance between people and technology is also required to ensure long term success. Developing an automation strategy that supports defined business objectives requires applying a methodology to investigate, analyze, and implement that strategy with a balance between people and technology.


One of the challenges facing any improvement process is ensuring improvements are sustainable. For example, an automation strategy developed for a chemical company had management support from the very start of the project. After investments in new technology and associated training, improvements exceeded expectations. Later on, during budgeting discussions, training was earmarked for cutbacks. Without having best practices in place with quantified results to demonstrate the benefits, cuts to the training budget might have become reality.


Apply best practices


A great way to improve business performance is through standardization. Best practices help ensure standards are appropriately applied.


Standards come in a variety of ''flavors'' with some being appropriate for internal processes while others are more aligned with meeting specific industry needs. For instance, standards could apply to graphic displays, controls, equipment, and the selection and measurement of third-party suppliers.


Some standards are designed to provide adopters increased flexibility and agility. For example, companies producing product in batches should examine the ANSI/ISA S88 batch standards and determine what impact its use could have on improving batch operations.


Data integration is another area where standards, technology, and people can be brought together to dramatically improve business efficiency. For instance, one company applied standards to integrate its control and data systems. In fact, the combination of standards, technology, and people went so well the company avoided building a centralized control room. An added bonus of the newly assembled data was that the company used the data to ''train'' an expert system that solved a particularly difficult and lingering control problem. See the sidebar ''Best practice groups'' for an illustration of how best practices are interrelated within groups.


People are key


We live in a highly competitive world. Companies are crawling over one another attempting to attract new investment money. At the same time, companies must continue to control costs, which too often is seen as reducing the workforce. What companies need to see are opportunities to improve the value of existing assets, especially the people assets. When a company's management produces a culture where people, technology, best practices, standards, and benchmarking are integrated into continuous improvement opportunity analysis and the wise deployment of knowledgeable assets, this doctor says; its illness can be cured.


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Maurice Wilkins is director of automation at Millennium Specialty Chemicals, where he is responsible for the design and implementation of their strategic technology plan. Mr. Wilkins currently serves as vice chairman of World Batch Forum (WBF) and has been actively involved in WBF since the first ''Meeting of the Minds'' in 1994. Mr. Wilkins also serves as managing director of Breakthrough Process Consulting .


Best practice groups

Though not an exhaustive list of groups of best practice, the following groupings help illustrate that anytime one or more best practices within a group is addressed in isolation, it opens the potential for frustration in other areas within the group.

Employee empowerment

  • Senior management support

  • Operator ''ownership of the process''

  • Goals and ability to do the job

  • Working in teams.

In-house skills and skills maintenance

  • Training and certification

  • Batch control skills on-site

  • Technology and skills transfer

  • Attendance at seminars and conferences.

State-of-the-art batch automation and plant-wide integration

  • Horizontal and vertical integration

  • Use of process data for improvement

  • ANSI/ISA S88 aware batch systems.

Standardization and use of S88

  • Application of site and industry standards (i.e., displays, control, etc.)

  • Use of ANSI/ISA S88 models in design, implementation, and operation of batch processes

  • Third-party selection and performance measurements.

Visions and Goals

  • Clear, well-articulated senior management vision

  • Continuous improvement

  • External and internal customer focus

  • Strategic technology planning.

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